The high point for me was when the Transport Department Issued a statement informing the public that the new Central-Wanchai bypass, opened the previous day, was already congested, and advising motorists to use alternative routes. In other words, they should bypass the bypass. I laughed so much I almost needed a bypass of my own.
But it would be too easy to just mock the short term teething problems and ignore the long term issues hiding behind them. When the new road is complete, the signage has been improved, and drivers have become accustomed to the layout, no doubt there will be improvements to vehicle flow at least for a few months. But then traffic volumes will build up again, the enhanced infrastructure will actually serve to attract additional users, and we will be back to square one.
Anyone doubting this assessment would do well to look at the experience of London’s M25 orbital motorway which was touted as the solution to the capital’s congestion issues, but now despite repeated widening exercises resembles a giant parking lot for much of the day. We now have our new road, two years late and at a cost of $36 billion compared to an original estimate of $28 billion, but what have we got for our money? Essentially, private cars will now be able to move along the northern shore of Hong Kong island a few minutes faster. Is that really a good use of so much public money?
The root cause of our traffic problems is that Hong Kong is a small place with a large number of people who need to move around a lot in the course of their daily lives. The shortage of land means there are limits to how much can or should be spared for transport infrastructure. Which means any sensible transport policy needs to begin with a fairly ruthless assessment of relative priorities.
This is not rocket science. Priority must be given to two categories of road user: bona fide commercial vehicles because free movement is essential to keep the economy ticking over; and public transport, because only thus can the millions on their daily commute to school or office get through. Our mass transit railway system is among the best in the world but it needs to be backed up by surface-based transport modes both as a supplement to cope with normal volume, and as an emergency fallback in the event of disruption to rail services.
That means that the number of less efficient road users – basically, private cars – needs to be strictly controlled. Our policy makers know this and for decades we have relied principally on fiscal means – high first registration tax, and duty on fuel – to achieve the objective. That maybe made sense years ago when Hong Kong was less prosperous and less crowded. But it’s no longer working. The number of private cars on our roads has exploded over the last decade and now exceeds 600,000 because we are a more wealthy city now, and we have more people, but the land area is no bigger. The number is far too high and needs to be reduced, both on transport and pollution grounds. And we know how to do this too.
Our nearest comparator city is Singapore, which has a permit system. In other words there is a finite number of private cars allowed on the roads. Does the administration have the vision and courage to introduce similar measures here? Do our legislators have the backbone required to endorse measures beneficial to the community as a whole but which will upset some special interests, including the wealthy and most powerful? The auguries are not good.
On the government side, we can see a long history of ducking difficult transport issues. Electronic road pricing which could help with peak hour congestion was first debated here more than 30 years ago. The subject has recently been revived, but you would not be advised to hold your breath waiting for a substantive move. Convenient hire car services such as Uber which are enjoyed pretty much everywhere else? Sorry, we are beholden to the taxi cartel.
The members of the Legislative Council are no better, as they have reconfirmed in the last few days. After many years of procrastination, the administration finally came up with a detailed plan to even out usage of our three cross-harbour vehicular tunnels. The proposal involves increasing tolls for the Hung Hom and Eastern tunnels, with substantial reduction in the toll for the Western Harbour Crossing. Operator of the latter, which is privately owned, would be compensated for lost revenue. The government tabled a non-binding resolution in the Legislative Council (as a precaution, because Finance Committee approval would later be needed for implementation) but withdrew the motion the day before the debate was due to be held.
Both pro government and pan democratic members were indicating unwillingness to support even though they had been pressing the government for years for just such a plan. Councillor Michael Tien Puk-sun came up with the convenient excuse that the motion should be delayed so as to allow time for the impact of the new bypass on traffic flows to be assessed first. But the real reason slipped out when another councillor was being interviewed on the radio last Wednesday morning. Nobody wants to deal with the proposal, he said, so close to the elections.
So while everyone is happy to vote for toll reductions for the Western Harbour Crossing, nobody is prepared to publicly support increases in tolls for the other two in the run-up to the district council elections in November. Next time councillors complain the administration lacks courage, beleaguered transport supremo Frank Chan-fan should just hold up a mirror and invite them to look at themselves. Or he could just say : welcome to the club.