HK MAGAZINE – October 3rd, 2008
From pollution to urban renewal and quality of life, a lot of Hong Kong’s problems can be traced back to unnecessary road construction, writes John Robertson.
Which is more important in Hong Kong—cars or you? If you read the pedestrian chapter of the Transport Department’s official “Road User’s Code,” you are bombarded with images of people fleeing for their lives or cowering in fear of the next luxury sedan barreling around the corner. “Look out for traffic turning into the road in which you are crossing,” warns one passage, “the driver may not see you or give way to you.” Another warns, “Before crossing a driveway, look all around for approaching traffic and listen. If there is no approaching traffic likely to use the entrance or driveway then carry on. Do not loiter in a driveway but walk straight across it.”
The pro-vehicle bias in this guidebook is emblematic of a larger, and much more disturbing one that guides all of our town planning, and has caused its fair share of controversy over the years. Remember the destruction of the Central Star Ferry Pier? That was part of the Central reclamation area, a project designed to introduce a bypass from Central to Wan Chai. Meanwhile, the proposed extension of Route 4 through Pok Fu Lam and Kennedy Town, which architect, planner and designer Peter Cookson Smith calls unnecessary and says “will spoil the shoreline for pedestrians,” has also caused an outpouring of opposition. Other contentious future plans include the demolition of Temple Street to build a highway connecting West and East Kowloon (refer to map, right, for list). Cars take precedent over pedestrianized areas, sidewalks, and road crossings. Many walkways in the city are flanked by metal barriers and railings, making crossing difficult. All of this despite the fact that cars remain a luxury item in Hong Kong, affordable only for the upper and upper-middle classes—no more than 5.3 percent of Hong Kongers are owners—and wholly unnecessary with Hong Kong’s first-rate public transport system soon expanding to the very places where new roads are being planned.
Designing Hong Kong convenor Paul Zimmerman is one of the many people fed up with kowtowing to vehicles. “Road planning here goes on ahead of actual urban planning, and whatever’s left over of the land goes in for zoning at the Town Planning Board,” Zimmerman says, citing the West Kowloon and new Central Waterfront projects as prime examples. Accordingly, Civic Exchange chief executive Christine Loh says, “the government’s planning process gives priority to building roads without considering good town planning or air quality.”
Such rampant road building—ordered by the government ostensibly to relieve both current and future, hypothetical congestion—ruins our cityscape and has exacerbated our already dangerous pollution problem.
Much of this pedestrian-unfriendly urban design is inherited from outdated colonial planning procedures, conceived long before Hong Kong declared itself an aspiring world city. As Friends of the Earth chairman Edwin Lau emphasizes, “rather than sustainable development, in the past everybody was talking about ‘efficiency.’” The official wisdom was that building new, wide roads increased efficiency and reduced congestion. Shortsighted bureaucrats failed to see that without adequate controls on the number of vehicles in the city, more roads would only serve to encourage more cars.
Our government still seems to be trapped in that way of thinking. Together with Wesley Wan, the president of the Hong Kong Automobile Association, they cite a growing influx of cross-border vehicles over the coming decades as one major justification for new roads. Yet as Civil and Structural Engineering Professor Hung Wing-tat of the Polytechnic University points out, “once you build a road, it stimulates development and generates traffic, and you end up with a chicken-and-egg scenario.” Far from thinking ahead, government planners are fixated on short-term goals. Hung believes that “the head of planning just thinks, ‘if I can do this in my term, then I can retire and the next guy can take care of the situation.’”
The existing administrative structure only promotes such narrow-mindedness. Currently, no single authority oversees the design of the city, which is a clumsy, piecemeal process. Professor Patrick Lau, an architect and planning legislator, puts Hong Kong’s “most essential planning and design problems” down to the fact that Roads and Railways Ordinances and the Town Panning Ordinance are entirely separate, despite their overlapping concerns. The Transport Department reports to the Chief Executive, while the Town Planning Board, through which public consultations are held, is powerless to stop its roads, and is forced to zone around them afterwards.
On top of all this, it doesn’t help that a continuous stream of money is allocated to infrastructure projects by an outdated funding mechanism. In 1982, the colonial government created the Capital Works Reserve Fund, a repository for all revenue from land sales. All money from this fund was designated solely for infrastructure projects. Decades later, when major projects have become not only unnecessary but detrimental to the city’s environment, the fund is still collecting money for them. Rather than redirecting the funds to areas where it might be needed—improving quality of life, addressing the widening rich-poor gap—the government continues to channel it toward unnecessary roads and bridges.
Part of this comes down to the same focus on short-term benefits. Yet many also suggest that the government is susceptible to influence from the developers and construction companies who have profited from such infrastructure projects and have a vested interest in keeping them going. The Route 4 extension is itself being built to provide extra vehicle access to new hotel developments proposed for the area, and Professor Hung notes that “there is further pressure on the government from people who want to develop places such as the Southern District industrial area, with its vacant factories.”
Many experts believe the government and private car owners can get out of our vehicle-centric mindset, but it will take some forceful prodding. Since these new roads are intended to reduce congestion, one obvious alternative would be to reduce the number of cars on the roads. This can be accomplished by introducing more fuel taxes, and higher import and registration taxes for car owners, such as is done in Singapore. The Transport Department’s own records show that such a policy would be effective. During the years 1982 to 1986, the number of private cars licensed in Hong Kong dropped every year due to rising license fees and registration taxes. When the fees and taxes were rescinded in 1987, the number of private car registrations went up again.
Aside from controlling car ownership, congestion can also be reduced through means such as road pricing. Studies on Singaporean-style Electronic Road Pricing have been conducted by the government for more than two decades, yet no measures have ever been implemented. When we pressed the government on the issue, they concedes that road pricing could come into effect on Hong Kong Island, but only after the completion of the Central-Wan Chai Bypass. But many experts agree that that is not enough. According to Zimmerman, road pricing will also soon be necessary in Kowloon too, if you consider the government’s projections for more cross-border traffic in the coming decades. “The new roads to China can only be financed by having more vehicles going over them, and the only way we can stop those vehicles from going to places like Mong Kok is by road pricing, not by simply building more roads elsewhere.”
These measures would all go a long way toward curbing congestion, but would not solve the overall problem of needless, controversial road construction. That would require a comprehensive overhaul of the planning procedures. Road planning would need to be submitted to the Town Planning Board, where the public could be consulted about the bigger picture of the outline zoning plans—as opposed to the piecemeal, post-zoning consultation that happens at the moment. That kind of reform, guided by what is essentially the democratic involvement of the public, might be a little farther down the road than anyone would like.
Roads to Nowehere
As if we haven’t got enough already, the government is planning to build several more highways in the next 30 years. Here’s the short list.
1. Tuen Mun—Chek Lap Kok Link
To aid in linking the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge to the city, an underwater tunnel will be built to link the Tung Chung exit of the bridge to Tuen Mun. This is also planned to link with the soon-to-be-completed West Tuen Mun Bypass, which will be a major passageway to the western border checkpoint with China.
2. Route 8
We already have two bridges linking Tsing Yi—but soon we’ll have a third. The Stonecutters Bridge (crossing Stonecutters Island), currently under construction, will become the backbone of a new passageway linking Tsing Yi and Cheung Sha Wan. It should be in use by next year.
3. Central Kowloon Bypass
The rationale? Build a highway to link Tsim Sha Tsui to Kai Tak to take enhance the development of the latter. The damage? The route might go straight through Temple Street, destroying one of our most precious cultural gems. Which sounds more important to you?
4. Route 4 (Kennedy Town to Aberdeen)
No one quite understands this—the government has decided to build two rail lines linking Aberdeen and west Hong Kong Island to north Hong Kong Island, and yet they are still considering building a highway linking the two districts. Are we that road-crazy?
5. Central-Wanchai Bypass
Let’s recap—the government says roads in Central and Wan Chai are way too congested and we therefore need to build a new highway linking the two districts. Running out of land to do so? Let’s reclaim some. And of course, many experts believe that the most surefire way to attract more traffic is to build more roads.
A Good Road Model
Think Hong Kong is running out of land for roads? Think of Singapore. The city-state, just two-thirds the size of Hong Kong, has imposed strict measures to control the number of privately owned vehicles on the road. The four major measures they imposed are not exactly rocket science, and our government has been studying them for years. But don’t expect to see them all in action here just quite yet. While we don’t necessarily advocate all of them, certainly a combination of deterants can solve our congestion problems without having to build new roads. Here are the four measures.
Imposing a Quota
Under the Vehicle Quota Scheme, would-be car owners bid each month for a limited number of Certificates of Entitlement, required for purchase of any vehicle and valid for only ten years. Bidding prices are so high (currently almost HK$77,000 for one) that it’s simply stupid to try and get one, unless of course you are fabulously rich.
High Vehicle Taxes
Bidding for a certificate is just the first step in a long and expensive procedure when it comes to owning a car in Singapore. Car buyers need to pay 150 percent of the car’s value as a registration fee, then a 41 percent customs duty, and finally an additional $5,446 fee for a private vehicle.
Yet More Taxes—The Road Tax
Next up are road taxes. They are renewable on a six-month or annual basis and the amount depends on your engine capacity. You also need to have your car inspected every two years (at your cost of course) in order to pay the road tax.
Pricing the Roads
Upon purchasing a car in Singapore, you also have to buy a device for the Electronic Road Pricing system and install it in your vehicle. The system employs a pay per use scheme, with different rates charged depending on which expressway or major road you use and at what time of the day. There is no charge during off-peak hours.
So How Expensive Exactly?
Taking all the above into account, buying an Audi A4 costs you roughly $990,993 in Singapore, while in Hong Kong, only $408,300.