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August, 2009:

Toxic mix

Christine Loh – SCMP

Hong Kong will be stuck with a large number of ageing, dirty buses for at least another decade

It is good to see that the focus of debate on the government’s proposed air quality objectives and clean-up measures is fixed firmly on reducing roadside pollution. It’s equally pleasing that the 6,000-odd buses, which contribute about 40 per cent of roadside pollution, are under the microscope.

However, rationalising bus routes, which is now receiving a great deal of attention, is unlikely to deliver the reductions in roadside concentrations of pollutants that we need to make a major impact.

There are two interconnected reasons for this. First, the bus fleet is an integral part of the transport network – it is affordable and comprehensive, and, because of all this, it is convenient. Many people, especially those on lower incomes, depend greatly on buses for their daily commute.

Bus rationalisation efforts between the government and bus operators have reduced the number of buses on some routes, thereby easing traffic congestion that also helps to reduce exhaust emissions from buses. From the public’s perspective, passengers have no problem with rationalisation as long as services remain reasonably convenient.

Second, passengers and their district councillors (for whom this issue is an opportunity to show commitment to their constituents) have a vested interest in retaining bus services at current levels.

The idea that passengers may have to wait a few minutes longer for the next bus, or that some bus stops may have to be eliminated to improve traffic flow, have come unstuck because of the assumption that this will cause greater inconvenience. Politicians in this case need to expend too much political capital that may not be worthwhile.

This is why end-of-pipe solutions – finding answers to a problem at the final stage of its cycle of causes and effects – are more attractive than ones involving management, planning and road pricing. Thus, politicians and government officials prefer taking the “easier route” to focus on reducing pollutants emitted by buses.

The good news here is that Hong Kong’s standards for new buses are broadly compatible with those of other developed cities. The bad news is that a whopping 75 per cent of the fleet is still running on highly polluting Euro II-standard engines, or worse.

And this is where Hong Kong is stuck. According to the Environmental Protection Department, the last of these buses is not due for retirement until 2019, and no mechanism exists to get them off the road any earlier. This means that, rather than upgrade their fleets, the bus companies will continue – perfectly legally, if not altogether responsibly – to run their toxic clunkers for at least another decade. This is clearly unacceptable.

So what should be done to clean up? Singapore is upgrading its equally dirty fleet to the substantially cleaner Euro V standards and will have a much cleaner fleet than Hong Kong, and much sooner.

Slow coach Hong Kong could also consider a range of other, even cleaner, options. London, for example, is trying out hybrid buses, while 20 per cent of Berlin’s buses now run on hydrogen – the cleanest of all fuels.

Buses in both mainland China and the US use natural gas, and electric trolley buses operate in many cities worldwide. In short, there are plenty of options.

So why not in Hong Kong? Much is made of our unique combination of a hot and humid climate, hilly terrain and heavy congestion. Certainly, there are technical issues that need to be resolved. But many of our buses run along flat routes.

The real problem is that there are no mechanisms in the bus franchises, air pollution legislation or current government consultation for revising air quality standards either to provide incentives for trials of new technologies or to force the dirtiest vehicles off the roads.

We know the problem, there are tried and tested solutions, and Hong Kong has the resources to create both the “carrots and sticks” that could quickly and effectively drive change.

But, until the government mandates the retirement of these dirty buses, we will all be sucking down the same toxic cocktail for another 10 years. Moreover, as other cities combine tail-pipe solutions with planning, pricing and management ones, Hong Kong may well be left behind for even longer if we do not act.

Christine Loh Kung-wai is chairman of the Clean Air Network and chief executive of the think tank Civic Exchange

Little headway made in bid to cut bus trips

Cheung Chi-fai and Anita Lam – SCMP

Bus trips have been cut by just a fraction on the city’s busiest traffic corridors in the past three years despite the government’s programme to streamline the routes of the three franchised bus companies.

Last year, just 360 daily trips were cut from the target routes of Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui, Yee Wo Street in Causeway Bay and Des Voeux Road, Connaught Road and Queen’s Road Central.

This was fewer than 1 per cent of the 37,000 daily bus trips on these corridors, Transport Department figures and the department’s latest environmental report show.

But this was an improvement from 2007 and 2006.

Numerous proposals have been suggested over the years to cut bus trips but the conflicting interests of commuters, politicians, bus companies and railway operators have meant few have gone ahead.

The streamlining is aimed at shortening or amalgamating overlapping routes, rationalising bus frequency and relocating bus stops.

It peaked in 2005, when more than 1,100 daily trips were axed.

There are now concerns the streamlining efforts have reached their limit, despite the Environment Bureau’s recent proposal to further cut trips by 10 per cent to improve roadside air quality. The bureau, in its review of air-quality objectives, said such exercises were cost-effective and improved air quality considerably, but it also acknowledged the moves were unpopular among commuters and politicians.

An official familiar with the situation said that with so many vested interests, including opposition at the district level, there was not much “fat to trim” unless there were more rail services.

Transport Department figures show 4,373 bus trips have been cut in the three busiest corridors since 2002. Between Shantung Street and Dundas Street in Nathan Road, for example, buses made up 44 per cent of all traffic in 2003. This had fallen to 29.9 per cent last year.

But on weekdays there are still an average of 11 buses passing that section every minute, and in the mornings, one in every two vehicles is a double-decker bus.

In Des Voeux Road Central, the bus trip ratio reaches nearly 70 per cent in the morning and stands at more than 30 per cent for the rest of the day.

While franchised buses are the second-most-used form of public transport after rail, carrying 3.7 million passengers a day, the diesel-fuelled buses are blamed for deteriorating roadside air quality. They account for 6 per cent of suspended particles emitted by the total vehicle fleet.

The three major operators, Kowloon Motor Bus, New World First Bus and Citybus, have 5,600 vehicles serving 600 routes.

Among these routes, at least 57 serve the southbound Nathan Road section between Shantung Street and Waterloo Road, while 40 ply eastbound Yee Woo Street in Causeway Bay. Many are heading to the same destination when they converge on these key spots. For example, KMB’s routes 6 and 6A originate at Mei Foo and neighbouring Lai Chi Kok but both head to the Tsim Sha Tsui Star Ferry via Nathan Road.

The traffic census last year showed that an average double-decker bus in Nathan Road was carrying 24 people, while it had 100 seats. Yau Tsim Mong district councillor Henry Chan Man-yu said this was because many commuters got off before the buses reached the end of the route in Nathan Road.

“The commuters are scattered among the vast number of routes converging into Nathan Road from all over Kowloon and the New Territories, which drags down occupancy rates,” he said.

An Environment Bureau spokesman said the bureau had no concrete plan on how to achieve the 10 per cent target. But it hoped the cut could mainly come from non-peak-hour services. He said the completion of new rail services could further cut bus trips, but the drop would still depend on public acceptance.

Many suggestions have been made to get commuters to use trains in preference to buses since the government decided 10 years ago that rail travel should be the backbone of the city’s transport system.

To get buses out of busy corridors such as Nathan Road and Causeway Bay, officials have proposed passengers get off at transport interchanges on the edge of the busy districts, switching to the MTR or circular bus routes within the area. But this idea was dropped even before the public had a chance to air its views.

“There is not enough space to house such a big interchange,” an official familiar with the proposal said. “Besides, commuters simply do not like switching transportation when they are a few stops before their destination.”

The officer said the Transport Department had considered Mei Foo, Prince Edward and Admiralty as possible locations but none were feasible for buses.

“After stopping at Admiralty for example, some buses must return to Kowloon and the New Territories, which means they will have to pass through Wan Chai and Causeway Bay anyway,” he said.

So how about offering commuters bus-rail interchange fare concessions so some bus routes do not have to run parallel to railway lines?

The department said it encouraged public-transport operators to offer interchange fare discounts, but with no government subsidies the operators would only do it when there were mutual benefits.

At present, only 14 among more than 600 bus routes offer bus-rail interchange concessions, and some free feeder bus services are in danger of being cut since the opening of the Kowloon Southern Link last week.

As for the proposals submitted to the 18 district councils every year on shortening, removing or reducing the frequency of various bus routes, it is no surprise how they are received by an affected community.

“Keeping a bus route that may be chopped otherwise – even though it carries only four passengers a bus – is one of the greatest achievements a district councillor can put on his political portfolio,” Mr Chan said.

And if one district backs the removal of a bus route, the department still needs the support of the other districts covered by the service before a decision can be made.

Fewer than 10 routes were removed in each of the past three years, and the department’s target in late 2006 to eliminate 100 buses was only half met.

The latest idea by the Environmental Protection Department to ban commercial vehicles that do not meet the toughest European emission standards from busy corridors is under public consultation.

Rethinking the way we think

Susie Gyopos, SCMP

Find out how changing our mental software can lead to creative solutions for the world’s problems, writes Susie Gyopos

Climate change, a sinking economy and the threat of epidemics hang glumly over everyone’s heads and we need to be able to think clearly to come up with practical solutions. According to the modern gurus of thought, we must dramatically rewrite the software we use for the human brain if we want to effectively confront the global issues plaguing us.

Edward de Bono, in his latest book, Think! Before It’s Too Late, argues that our thinking is simply no good.


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Either way we pay


Air pollution has been a grim perennial problem in Hong Kong, posing a risk not only to the health of seven million citizens, but the city’s image as an international financial centre. Filthy air is choking our economic development by scaring away foreign investors.

Hongkongers have for many years blamed the city’s poor air quality on the polluting factories on the other side of the border. Indeed, many of these factories have suspended operation since the economic downturn began last year. But, despite this, our air quality remains atrocious, which has unequivocally proved that the pollution is local. It is mainly caused by emissions from vehicles including pre-Euro I diesel models and from our two power stations that burn cheap coal. Both are believed to be responsible for contributing 30 per cent and 15 per cent of air pollutants, respectively.

The environment minister, Edward Yau Tang-wah, recently unveiled 19 measures to achieve new air-quality objectives as part of a two-year review to overhaul the 1987 objectives. The government hopes that these measures, expected to cost about HK$600 million a year, will bring benefits of HK$1.2 billion a year as a result of the improvement in public health and savings in energy costs. But the public will need to cough up higher power tariffs and bus fares in return.

These measures include an increased use of natural gas in the energy mix, the early retirement of heavily polluting vehicles such as double-decker buses, and rationalising existing bus routes. Mr Yau stressed that an overall improvement in air quality would bring immediate benefits. As this is a collective responsibility, every citizen should be prepared to accept a 20 per cent rise in electricity tariffs and a 15 per cent increase in bus fares.

On the other hand, if we chose to do nothing, the economic costs in terms of public health and economic impacts would be massive.

The government is in actual fact advocating a “consumer-pays” principle to fund the clean-up, which I believe is reasonably acceptable. It is indisputably our civic responsibility to protect our environment and make Hong Kong a better home, but a fair share of this should be shouldered by the administration.

It is time the government reviewed its public transport policy, of which a top priority should be to reduce the number of polluting vehicles. Besides making sure that we have cleaner power plants, cleaner fuels and cleaner vehicles, we also need improved traffic management. One effective way would be to force franchised bus companies to downsize their fleets to lower total emissions.

Street-level pollution, which is worryingly high, comes almost wholly from the vehicles on our roads. Therefore, traffic flows need to be managed more efficiently, and the number of vehicles must be reduced dramatically.

We have four franchised bus companies, providing overlapping bus services that are not only wasteful but ultimately clog our roads while churning out toxic fumes that damage our health. But there is little incentive for franchisees to reduce their fleets, which bring in lucrative revenues by doubling as mobile billboards.

To further compound the problem, most district councillors often object to rationalisation of bus routes to avoid upsetting their constituents. If only they could be more objective and see that fewer buses would ease traffic congestion and, as a result, shorten commute times. Besides, our city is too small to warrant four franchised bus companies. The government should consider pushing for a merger to consolidate their services. This would give Hong Kong a more efficient and sustainable public transport system; while at the same time improve overall air quality without having to shift the financial burden to the general public.

We can no longer disregard the magnitude of Hong Kong’s air pollution and every one of us should be prepared to make sacrifices to minimise our environmental footprint. A Native American proverb sums it up pertinently: “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.”

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator.

Lower emission standards fail to stop most dangerous particles


The government’s air-quality consultant, Ove Arup, says there are more regional rather than local sources for PM2.5 pollution [superfine particles].

Hong Kong is affected by northerly winds from the Pearl River Delta for only half the year. Indeed power companies in the delta started installing flue gas desulphurisation three years earlier than Hong Kong and Shanghai buses run off methanol.

PM2.5 pollution is the most lethal in our air. These particles are at least 30 times thinner than human hair in diameter and carry heavy metals from combustion processes that remain suspended in our air like cigarette smoke, restricting visibility and are unable to be filtered by lung or throat hairs so they enter unhindered into the lungs.

Our major polluters are our power stations that burn cheap coal, pre-Euro I diesel vehicles and ships in our port that burn the dregs of high-sulphur bunker fuel.

The Indigo (Agglomerator) technology that catches these particulates from power companies is available at the cost of just 17 days’ worth of Hong Kong’s coal supply.

By proposing interim World Health Organisation standards, the government allows the power companies to fit lower levels of best available current technology and still meet the emission standards, to the demise of public health.

Licence fees for pre-Euro I diesel engines could be tripled to encourage owners to trade up to Euro V models, which are four to six times less polluting. Shipping zones that are emission control areas in our waters need to be mandated like the US, forcing ships to use low-sulphur fuel.

Many ocean-going vessels are already equipped with separate tanks to use low-sulphur fuel in harbour areas or they cannot enter first-world ports. Scaremongering the public by erroneous statements of how much clean air will cost them without offsetting the HK$3 billion in current medical costs is a blatant omission.

London will very soon have more than 330 hybrid electric double-decker buses running in its busy streets, which Hong Kong needs to emulate.

James Middleton, chairman, energy committee, Clear the Air

Fresh thoughts


Any cross-border clean-up of air pollution must require co-operation among regional authorities. Opportunities for strong collaboration can be created and sustained, but Hong Kong must make this happen. A good place to start is our own government’s consultation on reviewing local air quality standards.

I’m often asked whether people across the border are sufficiently aware about environmental problems to want to do something about them. Studies clearly show a high level of public concern in the Pearl River Delta. In 2001-2002, when Civic Exchange worked with a Shenzhen organisation on the first environmental survey of public attitudes in the PRD, air pollution ranked third among people’s environmental concerns, behind food safety and clean drinking water. At the time there had been a spate of illnesses linked to contaminated food and water.

Further studies since then provide a clearer picture of what our neighbours think. In 2007, the mainland-based Horizon Research Consultancy Group surveyed the environmental attitudes of residents in 10 major cities. Among the nation’s many severe environmental problems, the health affects of air pollution was the leading concern. Urban air pollution was ranked the most urgent national environmental problem by 64 per cent of respondents. These results were corroborated by a Pew Global Attitudes Survey last year that found 74 per cent of Chinese respondents said air pollution was a serious problem.

Curiously, when residents in the 10 cities were asked in 2007 to rate their local air quality, many thought it was good or even very good. This may indicate that people have become accustomed to heavy air pollution and did not have sufficient information to know the severity of pollution. For example, half the residents of Beijing thought their city had moderate air quality, even though available data showed it was poor. Only 14 per cent said air quality was bad or very bad. In the case of Hong Kong’s neighbour, Guangzhou, 38 per cent thought air quality was good or very good, 32 per cent thought it was “neutral” – neither good nor bad – and only 30 per cent thought it was bad or very bad. Nevertheless, among the 10 mainland cities, Guangzhou residents were the least happy with the local air quality.

The 2007 survey tested whether residents thought economic growth was more important than environmental protection. A substantial majority, 77 per cent, favoured environmental protection even if it had negative impacts on the economy. The survey also explored people’s choice if the city were to set up a business that could provide more than 1,000 jobs but would cause pollution at the same time. Sixty-six per cent said they would object to it.

Some may argue that the mainland economy in 2007 was in much better shape and that people might respond differently today. This may be true but the point is the survey tells us mainland city dwellers are willing to consider sacrificing a degree of economic growth for a better environment.

In terms of how to improve environmental conditions, the mainland respondents wanted better public policies, higher penalties for offenders, better environmental technology, and improved laws and regulations. They also thought the most effective way to make their voices heard was through the media, local neighbourhood committees and even complaining directly to the authorities.

These findings provide a useful foundation to move ahead. Hong Kong’s moves to clean up its air through cleaner power plants and factories, integrated land use, cleaner fuels and electric vehicles, improved traffic management and other policies will set the pace for the rest of the nation.

By working closely with Shenzhen and Guangzhou to clean up shipping- and port-related emissions, Hong Kong can help the region adopt green port policies that are on par with those in the US and Europe.

Christine Loh Kung-wai is chief executive of the think-tank Civic Exchange.