Backed up traffic bathe in the glow of neon lights in  Hong Kong. Photo: iStock
Backed up traffic bathe in the glow of neon lights in Hong Kong. Photo: iStock

Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, including Dopey, have all probably traveled on the Tung Chung MTR line. Naturally, they would have been in their off-duty clothes before hopping off at Sunny Bay station for the short rail journey to Hong Kong Disneyland Resort and a quick costume change.

Opened in June 1998 by the then Chief Executive of the Special Administrative Region, Tung Chee-hwa, the line was part of the US$20 billion new airport project at Chek Lap Kok, which was designed by Sir Norman Foster at Foster Associates, and runs parallel to the airport express.

With 10 underground and overground lines linking Hong Kong Island with Kowloon, the New Territories and even Lantau Island, the MTR is recognized as a world-class network.

Unfortunately, other aspects of the city’s transport system resemble what can only be described as a blend of cartoon character farce and poor planning.

“The problem with Hong Kong is that it is not handling the major issues, and not coming up with the right remedies,” Quentin Cheng, a spokesman for the Public Transport Research Team, which he co-founded in 2011, told Asia Times. “The government does not have the foresight to deal with the problems.

“For instance, the transportation services for new towns are inadequate. There should be more roads to connect Tuen Mun, one of the earliest new towns, with Kowloon, but the government has never planned for this,” he continued.

“Residents of new towns can only stay in their districts, even though there are very few jobs for them. The supply for public transport cannot meet demand, and demand for public transportation is huge. Yet the Transport Department has even reduced the number of buses and minibusses,” Cheng added.

Gridlock headache

Despite the metro system, limited direct rail routes and inadequate transportation in new towns have left parts of Hong Kong with a major gridlock headache, as commuters struggle through ‘rush hour’ traffic to get to and from work.

Finding the right solutions has proved elusive. But while many pick apart the administration’s approach, the problems appear to be more complex and multi-layered.

“As far as infrastructure is concerned, Hong Kong has been doing it, but there has been a lot of obstacles,” Shih Wing-ching, the founder and chairman of the Centaline Property Agency, one of the largest in Hong Kong, told Asia Times.

“For example, a lot of anti-development activists were against building the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link, as well as the proposal to build a third runway. I personally don’t support excessive infrastructure, but Hong Kong should speed up infrastructure plans,” Shih, who is also the publisher of the Chinese-language free daily newspaper AM 730, added.

At the heart of road transport are five privately-owned bus companies, dominated by KMB, which has nearly 4,000 vehicles and was founded in the 1930s, and Citybus, which has about 1,000. Fleets of minibuses and taxis weave through a web of interlocking routes.

Yet “black spots” still exist with clogged roads during peak periods. To help solve the problem, the government has asked “private operators running the public transport network” to start sharing data, which could reduce journey times and ease congestion.

Already the plan has run into a cul-de-sac with Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor blaming the companies for failing to cooperate.

“Our public transport operators, for example, are private companies. And they are generally reluctant to share at no cost as the data is generated from their operations,” she told members of Smart City Consortium, a trade organization, last month.

“We will continue in our efforts to convince them of the benefits that everyone gains in a system where the data is freely available. I am sure the Smart City Consortium will help us to give this a real push.”

Unfortunately, her pleas have fallen on deaf ears. Citybus and New World First Bus, owned by the World Development conglomerate, have made it clear that costs are a major roadblock.

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“The huge additional investment and operational costs for developing real-time information systems are borne by NWFB and Citybus,” an NWFB and Citybus spokesman said. “In view of the commercial value associated with real-time data, we do not open up such information to third-party app developers for free.”

In the end, striking the right balance will be crucial in pursuing the “Smart City” dream, according to Winnie Tang, an honorary professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Hong Kong.

Real-time information looks certain to revolutionize the system and has been rolled out by the Department of Transportation in the United States after “smart traffic lights and adaptive signal control technology” were used to collect data through roadside sensors.

By adjusting the lights, the department found that journeys could be reduced by more than 10%, saving fuel and boosting air quality by cutting down on pollution.

“Apart from smart traffic lights, many places have implemented smart city technology like smart parking, digital tourism, smart grid and gerontechnology, with impressive results,” Tang wrote in the South China Morning Post. “At the same time, one estimate by the International Data Corporation showed that the annual market demand for smart city technology in Asia will reach $1 trillion before 2025.

“Navigant Research predicted that by 2026, global investment in smart transport, including traffic management through the Internet of Things, more sophisticated [travel] information services and transport mode recommendations, will amount to $17.5 billion, compared to $6.6 billion in 2017. Clearly, implementation of these smart services will benefit people’s livelihoods and move Hong Kong toward the goal of being a smart city,” she added.

High tech might be the answer, but at grassroots level the city needs to radically improve its road transportation network by developing bus and rail routes around new towns, and opening up the bidding procedure to stimulate competition.

Since the administration only allows companies with experience to run services, this has produced a “monopoly”, Cheng, an outspoken critic on government policy in the sector, emphasized.

Public transport monopoly

Franchised buses account for between 30% and 40% of public transport patronage, and the MTRC [Mass Transit Railway, which consists of heavy rail, light rail and feeder bus service] account for 40%,” he said. “It means only three parties are running the majority of Hong Kong’s public transport services.

“They are the MTRC, New World Development and Sun Hung Kai Properties, which have control over the five franchised bus operators. These three players have formed a monopoly of public transport services,” he added.

Cheng has also called for a new approach when it comes to infrastructure and town planning policy to help people “trapped” in the suburban districts of Hong Kong.

With jobs at a premium in these areas labeled the ‘outer limits of Hong Kong’, most of the residents are forced to endure hours of traveling to find employment. Many end up in low-paid jobs or are thrown on to the unemployment register because of prohibitive transport costs.      

“People living in new towns are trapped,” Cheng said. “Only when the economy thrives, can they find [well-paid] jobs and afford expensive transportation costs. People living in the New Territories and new towns spend at least three to four hours traveling [each day].”

Tin Shui Wai falls into this category and is considered one of the poorest areas in Hong Kong. Unemployment is high with up to 80% of the 270,000 residents on social welfare, a report by the Asian Sentinel website confirmed. The lack of jobs, “meaningful social interaction with other towns and government inaction” has led to isolation, it went on to say.

“Without building infrastructure, the government houses people in new towns and this will again create [more places like] Tin Shui Wai, which is known as the ‘City of Sadness’,” Cheng said.

Even though fares in Hong Kong are cheaper than in London and other parts of Europe, they are still too high for the poorest sections of the community. Not even a sprinkle of magic from Disneyland will change that, but a concerted shift in government policy might just do the trick.

Read Part 1: Behind the glitz and glamour of ‘Monopoly City’

Read Part 2: Life in a ‘shoebox’ for the lucky rich in Hong Kong

Read Part 3: Little guys struggle in the land of the giants

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