Tuesday 25 September 2012

Pointers from HK's public transport

The territory's system is so effective that it is the preferred mode of travel even for the rich
By Li Xueying, The Straits Times, 23 Sep 2012

Auditor Vickie Lee lives in Sha Tin, New Territories, in the north of Hong Kong. Every day, she travels to her office in Central, the heart of Hong Kong Island. The distance is 17.6km, about that between Shenton Way and Woodlands in Singapore.

To get to work, the 26-year-old has three public transport options.

She can take the Mass Transit Railway (MTR). The journey will be about 30 minutes.

During peak hours, she can take express bus No. 88R for a journey of 45 minutes.

For variety, she can take a mini-bus before switching to either the tram, which locals fondly call "ding-ding", or a ferry across the harbour. This will take a total of 80 minutes.

Clearly, Ms Lee has little need to drive - even though cars are cheap; a six-year-old Toyota Corolla can be had for HK$65,000 (S$10,400).

Just last week, a quote by Mr Gustavo Petro, mayor of Bogota, Colombia, went viral on social media. "A developed country is no place where the poor have cars. It's where the rich use public transport," he opined.

Hong Kong's public transport system certainly is developed. While its super-rich do zoom around in Ferraris, the vast majority of the population - including the well-off and middle class - use public transport.

In this city, a full 80 per cent of daily trips are made on public transport - the MTR, buses and trams. Another 10 per cent take taxis. That leaves just the top 10 per cent ensconced in private cars.

And despite the rapid influx of visitors in the past decade - those from mainland China alone shot up from 8.5 million in 2003 to 28 million last year - Hong Kong's public transport system appears to have coped relatively well.

In Singapore, by comparison, public transport accounts for 57 per cent of journeys; taxis, 5 per cent; and private cars, the remaining 38 per cent.

Under the 2008 Land Transport Masterplan, Singapore aims to boost the proportion of journeys by public transport and taxis to 70 per cent by 2020.

With eight years to go to meet this target, and major MRT breakdowns over the past year, it may be instructive for Singapore to examine Hong Kong's experience.

Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew visited Hong Kong and Seoul last week. His office declined coverage of his trip, but The Sunday Times understands that its focus was to study the operations of the MTR and buses here.

An efficient octopus

History and geography gave Hong Kong a head start.

Its mountainous terrain - even today, just 22 per cent of its land is developed - meant that there was little flat land for roads, and so the British quickly built the rail system, says transport expert Hung Wing Tat of Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

As early as 1967, a study for the MTR system was done, and by 1979, the first line went into operation.

"And so before the people had money to buy cars, we got into the habit of taking public transport," Dr Hung quips.

Since then, the MTR network has expanded rapidly as the backbone of the public transport system, with its 175km of tracks, 84 stations and nearly 1,000 exits that extend like tentacles into the city's nooks and crannies.

It is supplemented by no fewer than five bus companies that provide 5,837 buses servicing 620 trunk routes. Routes are centrally planned so that operators are forced to bid for a bundle of both profitable and non-profitable routes.

And unlike in Singapore, there is no shortage of bus drivers, who number around 30,000, says Mr Aaron Yeung, former chairman of Public Omnibus Operators Association. They are paid HK$15,000 to HK$20,000 for a six-day work week of eight to 10 hours daily.

Green mini-buses, with 352 routes, are speedy alternatives, while red mini-buses - which are not bound by routes - offer door-to-door service. Trams charging a flat fare of HK$2.30 provide cheap rides for elderly residents on Hong Kong Island.

Meanwhile, a financing model allows the privatised MTR Corp to develop property around its stations in exchange for taking on construction costs, says Dr Hung.

This "rail plus property" model has served Hong Kong well, says Undersecretary for Transport and Housing Yau Shing-mu.

It ensures speedy implementation of projects, given the absence of competition for resources for other public works, he tells The Sunday Times by e-mail. It also "smooths out the interface between stations, depots and topside developments", avoiding any future property development that may affect rail operations.

There are two ramifications of this model for Singapore to consider, says Dr Lee Der Horng of the National University of Singapore.

The first is that Hong Kong's infrastructure is "more coherent" whereas Singapore's MRT stations can end up "in the middle of nowhere".

For instance, to maximise its reach, MTR ensures that high-density developments are placed on top and around each station.

The stations, in turn, are well connected via underpasses, bridges and travelators to farther homes, malls and offices. The aim, says Mr Yau, is that population within 500m can reach the stations comfortably on foot. This is just short of the distance from Ang Mo Kio MRT station to Bishan Park, if you draw a straight line.

Take Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong's shopping stretch. It has two stations with 22 exits in an area that spans the area from the Forum shopping mall to Orchard Cineleisure in Singapore. Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong's poorest district, has six exits.

The second ramification is that having a hugely profitable property arm that accounts for over a third of MTR's turnover helps to take pressure off the bottom line.

This, suggests Dr Lee, avoids the organisational issues that could have led to the MRT breakdowns, which have been attributed to an inadequate maintenance regime. "MTR is so profitable, they may not have this sort of pressures to save costs by cutting here and there."

Challenges ahead

Yet, the Hong Kong public transportation system is not all hunky-dory.

For one thing, as the MTR network extends to already developed areas such as the University of Hong Kong area in Pok Fu Lam, there is limited land to be mined for real estate profits. Already, the government is subsidising the building of some MTR stations, says Dr Hung.

Another is the faltering profitability of the bus companies. The largest of them, Kowloon Motor Bus, saw its profits drop from HK$353 million in 2010 to HK$43 million last year, as fuel prices soared and more passengers migrated to the MTR. This comes on top of increasing calls for the operators to trade their vehicles - major contributors to the city's pollution - for more environmentally friendly, and expensive, buses.

There is some public scepticism about the bus operators' outcry. Most are owned by tycoons. The government also offers indirect financial support such as waivers of licence fees and depot rental fees.

Mr Yau admits that as more new railway lines come into operation, "there will be network rationalisations to meet changes in demand for buses". "The public will be consulted on the network revisions," he promises.

Says Dr Hung: "Whatever the decision, there must be a principle that commuters should not be worse off. If they have to suffer, then there should be some sort of fare concession in return for longer travelling times."

Meanwhile, the government has provided some financial support for the operators to bring in new electric buses for trial in 2014.

On how the rising operating cost would be dealt with, Mr Yau points to improving efficiency. Commuters will also have to accept the trade-off. He adds: "Fare increase is also an option."

And last but not least, with boundaries between the city and the mainland loosening, Hong Kong would have to gird itself for more and more visitors to come. Mr Yau points to the need to look forward and build ahead of time. Projects in the pipeline include theShenzhen-Hong Kong express rail link to be completed in 2015.

Lessons for Singapore

What lessons then can Singapore draw from Hong Kong?

In an interview with The Straits Times in June, Mr Lui expressed doubts that the MTR financing model could apply to Singapore, saying the Singapore Government has more control over the development of a rail line. Meanwhile, proceeds from land sales around MRT stations benefit Singaporeans.

He also said the Government is relooking how buses should be financed, given that the operators have been in the red.

As Singapore ramps up its MRT network, one thing is clear: Even if it does not cede development rights to metro developers, there has to be far greater synergy between the transport and the urban planners in planning the design of the stations and the neighbourhood around them.

And as the Land Transport Authority takes back the role as a central planner of bus routes, it would have to get creative in balancing profits of the operators and the needs of commuters.

For instance, can alternatives to large buses - such as mini-buses which are cheaper to operate and nimble enough to zip into HDB carparks - be considered? What kind of competition should be injected into the landscape?

Financial viability is crucial. But profits and desirability of the service are both sides of the same coin. The more attractive public transport becomes, the bigger the pool of commuters - and the profits.

Unless it is too late.

As Dr Hung puts it with a laugh: "Once you start driving, it's tough to drag you out of the car."


Population: 7.1 million

Land area: 1,104 sq km, of which about 250 sq km is developed

Number of passenger journeys a day: 12 million

- The main backbone of Hong Kong's public transport system, with 175km of rail and 84 stations 
- 4.6 million trips a day, accounting for 38 per cent of all journeys
- Five franchised bus firms operating 620 bus routes 
- 3.73 million trips a day 
- Mini-buses provide another 1.9 million trips 
- Green mini-buses are on scheduled routes, often to outlying areas 
- Red mini-buses, without fixed routes, offer door-to-door service
- An icon of Hong Kong, these have trundled along since 1904, and continue to ferry 210,000 passengers a day 
- 161 double-decker trams running on 16km of track on Hong Kong Island, avoiding congested roads. - Cheap and useful especially for the elderly, who find them easier to board and alight from
- Another symbol of Hong Kong, the Star Ferry started crossing the harbour in 1898 
- 140,000 trips between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon
- Plentiful and affordable - meter starts at HK$20 (S$3.20) for the first 2km 
- 18,138 taxis make about one million trips a day 
- Three colours: red (urban areas), green (New Territories) and blue (Lantau)

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