Starting domestic : sustainable travel in Hong Kong

“Hong Kong, with a land area of only 1,105 square kilometres has a population of more than seven million. Every day, over 12.6 million passenger journeys are made on a public transport system which includes railways, trams, buses, minibuses, taxis and ferries.” [1]

Hong Kong is viewed as a free market economy, but, in terms of institutional dependency, the government’s transport department and private enterprises (defined as companies involved in the contracting process of building and operating the public transport systems) have done a remarkable job in terms of encouraging and altering people’s behaviours to utilise the public transport network. This has been achieved through a two prong approach : firstly, sound infrastructure built and operated by capable, reputable companies and, secondly, government disincentives for people to own private modes of transport through taxes and tariffs. The Hong Kong government’s policy and initiatives towards public transport has naturally resulted in pro-sustainability behaviours by consumers.

The public transport system in Hong Kong, I believe, is one of the best in the world in terms of ease, efficiency, safety, cleanliness and cost. All of these elements combined have heavily influenced consumer behaviour in accessing and using Hong Kong’s public transport system, whether it be by train, ferry, double decker buses, mini buses or the private bus system. The MTR corporation is one of Hong Kong’s most progressive and impressive organisations and an interesting statistic I came across on their website is more than 70% of the city’s population live within a 10 minute walk to a train station. MTR Corporation also provide open and transparent reporting on their sustainability initiatives and have won a number of overseas contracts to run other country’s cities railway systems.[2]  Many of the global cities abroad should look to HK’s public transport system to improve their own transport infrastructure efficacy and to also encourage and promote consumer behaviour change in doing so.

I have lived in Hong Kong (“HK”) for over eight years now and have loved exploring all corners of HK. Over that time, I have seen more of Hong Kong than most people born here. I have traveled on every Mass Transit Railway (“MTR”) line in HK to get to where I needed to go; I’ve traveled to the border to get across to Shenzhen, China; hopped on the MTR and minibus to visit my in-laws in Shatin; I’ve commuted via public transport to every publicly accessible beach and islands in Hong Kong; I’ve traveled all over the territory for hiking trips; been out to the Gold Coast to go mountain biking and to Tuen Mun to go horse riding.  And my daily commute to work? I opt to walk to the bus stop and ride the eco-friendly bus (another Hong Kong government initiative to lower carbon emissions[3]) which is approximately 20 minutes door-to-door and costs me less than USD$1. On my way home I would normally walk the infamous Mid Level escalator to get up the hill but now being in my third trimester of pregnancy I have succumbed to taking taxis and Ubers. Perhaps not the most environmentally friendly mode of travelling but taxis do run on liquified petroleum gas. My rationale is I can’t get home by public transport the same way that I do to work. Though I have spoken extremely highly of Hong Kong’s public transport network, not everything is perfect: there are very few bike lanes for cyclists and the most odd thing I find in Hong Kong walking is the sudden disappearance of walking paths which then forces pedestrians to walk on roads shared with cars, buses and trucks before a walking path reappears. However, I have noticed that in new residential development areas, the government and property developers (which also includes MTR) have learnt from their past errors and do now try and accommodate for much smarter infrastructure and development which includes continuous walking paths and biking lanes to promote healthier lifestyles.

The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region has gone to great lengths to ensure that public transport is easily accessible and affordable to the city’s population and tourists. In public-private partnerships between the government and companies, like MTR Corporation, they have created and fostered a sustainable transport system and pro-sustainability behaviours in consumers encouraging people to use public and shared transport system over private vehicle usage.

[1] http://www.td.gov.hk/en/transport_in_hong_kong/public_transport/introduction/index.html

[2] https://www.mtr.com.hk/en/corporate/sustainability/protecting_environment.html

[3] http://www.td.gov.hk/filemanager/en/publication/ptss_final_report_eng.pdf

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2 thoughts on “Starting domestic : sustainable travel in Hong Kong

  1. I echoed what Elizabeth said. MTR is indeed very convenient for us all in Hong Kong. Recently, I travelled to Ocean Park, Hunghom and Homantin a lot through the new MTR lines. Interestingly, the public transportation system in Hong Kong still have few tiny things to fix. For instance, the train service at the Tung Chung MTR lines can be more frequent. Also, its hard to find a taxi on a week-day when the 4 to 5pm shift change takes place. Ironically, albeit a highly efficient and relatively affordable public transport system, a large number of Hong Kong people still consider car ownership a status symbol. Therefore, traffic congestion could be quite bad during pear hours.

    As a city by the sea, Hong Kong should be much less vulnerable to air pollution. Besides, Hong Kong is predominantly a service-oriented economy without manufacturing industries that would pollute its air. The main source of air pollution in Hong Kong is from cars that clog the streets while producing harmful pollutants as they slither through traffic (a secondary reason is the famous skyscraper and tall buildings in Hong Kong blocking the cooling winds that should clear airborne pollutants).

    To be fair, the government has made considerable efforts in trying to discourage car ownership (except for its surprised act of hiking the tax on electric cars in its previous year’s budget). Nevertheless, car owners are unaffected by high taxes and the rising cost (eg car parking space could cost million of Hong Kong dollars) of keeping cars in Hong Kong.

    Look forward to MTR opening more new lines in coming years to help further reduce number of vehicles on Hong Kong street.

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  2. Really enlightening post, I never realised how effective the Hong Kong public transport system is! Also looking at transport is a very interesting take on consumption – not a form of consumption that we think about often, but it is still consumption. Why do you think HK’s public transport network has developed like it has? You mention that the HK government has policies which lead to these sustainable outcomes – is this a conscious decision on the part of the government? I would be curious to understand more about what has led to this policy position.

    Do you see this situation changing over time? I have read that the number of total private vehicles grew by about 30% between 2003 and 2013, with an annual growth rate of 3.4% in recent years [1]. Do you think this trend will continue, and how do you think the government will react? What are your personal views on this? Perhaps as you have suggested there is an eventual trade off between sustainabile travel and practical travel for some consumers, for example young families might find it easier to travel by car rather than public transport.

    I’m looking forward to reading more about your forays into the world of sustainable travelling. Some might even see this as a bit of a paradox (I have the same moral dilemmas myself as I love exploring far flung places across the globe but at the same time can’t avoid the inescapable guilt of booking air travel). What do you think about things like carbon offset programmes, and have you come across anything else that aims to address this?

    [1] http://www.thb.gov.hk/eng/boards/transport/land/Full_Eng_C_cover.pdf

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