- The congestion charge issue has been around for 40 years since the Secretary for Transport Alan Scott pushed it strongly and after several years of Government prevarication resigned after the scheme was rejected. It has never been taken up seriously since that time, probably partly because of vested interests, and partly because the traffic situation has become steadily worse over the last few years.
- The technology of Electric Road Pricing is relatively simple, but there are several extraneous factors:
The first is the question of where the boundaries are drawn. In London this was not so difficult as it covered almost all of the central city and inner urban fringe during working hours (07:00 and 18:00), and where private car commuting was to and from a wide range of destinations around the compass (although relatively large numbers of people lived and owned cars in these areas). In Hong Kong the issue is rather different in that many car owners and goods vehicles have little option but to pass through Central en route to other locations. How charging would work in this situation remains uncertain. Sensors could cover this but then the result might not reduce a significant part of the actual congestion problem. In London, over the years, the level of private car commuting has picked up since its introduction, but it is stated that there has been a 15 percent overall reduction in congestion. Against this it must be stated that public transport, in particularly buses has improved (although expensive) and congestion charging in London brought in excess of 200 million pounds last year at a rate of £11:50 daily charge and a £130 penalty charge.
The second is the question of ‘Smartness’. The dichotomy in Hong Kong is that while the SAR has probably the most comprehensive and cost effective public transport in the world, much congestion in the urban area is caused not merely by cars but by long-distance buses and coaches that pass through major urban road corridors, and are often constrained by illegal kerbside parking, with coaches / goods vehicles actually stopping in the middle carriageway. Within minutes this creates congestion. For my observation over the past few years there is little serious police control or action and probably because of this illegal parking has got steadily worse.
The third relates to Smartness i.e. Hong Kong’s move to a smart and sustainable city. We are all aware of the plus 40 percent increase in private vehicle licenses over the past few years. This has essentially made a bad situation much worse, and a basic question must be asked as to why this has been allowed to occur. It is also not merely a matter of illegal parking but the restrictions and discomfort to pedestrians, hemmed in on already narrow pavements by ugly fencing, and fined by enthusiastic protectors of the law if they try to cross a road against the lights. The lack of public car parking spaces has led to a commensurate increase in illegal parking, with scarcely any apparent action – in fact from my observation around half of illegally parked vehicles have no drivers in the driving seat, so are not necessarily in pick-up/drop-off mode. Little seems to have been done to utilise cameras, generally now used to track and fine drivers who exceed the speed limit.
- Our extensive HKIP Study to partly pedestrianise Des Voeux Road some eight years ago was predicated, at the express initiative of the Environmental Protection Department, to take advantage of two factors that were then in the pipeline: the Central / Wan Chai By-Pass and the MTR extension to Kennedy Town. In passing it is worth mentioning that our environmental consultants from City University, concluded that Des Voeux Road was subject to the worst pollution of any road corridor in Hong Kong. What was then largely unknown was the forthcoming increase in private vehicles, coupled with a failure of measures to increase improved vehicle use of the Western Tunnel via the Bypass and Connaught Road. Little has really happened on this from the Government side despite the establishment of a Joint Committee with Transport Department which got us nowhere. The essential reason is a reluctance to examine the issue of traffic, public transport, pedestrianisation and the design and comfort of the public realm as part and parcel of the same picture.
- A number of “suggested measures” have been proposed by Transport Department. The proposed “new” parking spaces are scarcely under a category of “park and walk” as they are virtually part of Central, and on top of this the proposed “Site 3” on the Central Reclamation which will entail the redevelopment of the existing “Star Ferry” car park as part of a “groundscraper” link to the harbourfront, will entail, under the present plan, a further 6-800 parking spaces. Cars do not arrive by helicopter – they arrive via Central’s surrounding roads which suggest even greater vehicular disturbance both on Central’s roads and on the Central reclamation. An increase in parking is unlikely to either improve the congestion situation, or facilitate an improved pedestrian environment.
- Driver’s habitual disregard for the traffic law could essentially be overcome, firstly by creating off-peak times for goods vehicles loading / unloading and image analysis which should enable prosecution of illegal parking.
- While the MTR extension to Kennedy Town has certainly succeeded in terms of passengers carried, it appears to have had little impact on the number of buses travelling along Des Voeux Road and while 70% of the traffic flow in Central might be attributed to private vehicles, bus routing for E-W traffic through core Central, Wan Chai and Causeway Bay remains a problem. Arguably the only viable option, apart from measures to reduce private vehicles is to increase, as far as possible, bus flow along Gloucester Road / Connaught Road, alleviating the problems in Central, Wan Chai and Causeway Bay, and skirting Des Voeux Road and Queen’s Road Central. As such, there is a particular need to evaluate the revamping of bus routes and stops etc. This should also include KMB routes between the N.T. and urban areas, where there are too many empty bus during non-peak hours, and too few interchange services between bus and MTR routes.
- The ‘Aims and Factors of the ERP Project” (Item 14) appear to be somewhat overblown for several reasons.
First there is a need for an overall plan for Central with regard to the relationship between pedestrian movement, pedestrian connectivity, vehicle penetration and through traffic; and
The overall aims and objectives should be to improve the environment as a whole; to put pedestrian comfort, convenience and walkability at the centre of proposals; and on this basis produce an overall betterment strategy. Traffic management, smart mobility, an emphasis on public transport and congestion charging need to be seen as part of a wider “improvement” objective, not merely to rationalise vehicular movement.
- There are certain doubts as to the efficacy of congestion charging as distinct, or as an alternative, from sensible planning and urban improvement measures. For car owners working in Central, their cars, drivers and parking costs are of little overall cost significance and are often attributed to company overheads. If an imposed congestion charge is comparable to London (i.e. around HK$120 per day) this is far lower than a daily parking charge in the area, and would scarcely disincentivise drivers. This does not of course apply to all car owners, but again from my observation a proportion of car owners do not drive to work but take public transport, Uber or taxis – the major factor is whether or not they have either an actual or voluntary driver or a parking space at or near their place of work. Car owners do however drive at weekends, which explains the major weekend congestion in non-central areas. If the revenue to be gained from congestion charging in other cities is anything to go by, it is doubtful if the proceeds from congestion charging will be used in other pro-active ways to better the urban condition.
- As an adjunct to urban design initiatives we might come up with further ideas for the benefit of the city as a whole, such as:
Cutting back on private vehicle licenses which have undoubtedly led to a decline in liveability across the entire urban area;
Examine the possibilities of closing certain roads entirely with the exception of emergency vehicles;
Plan for extended and improved cycle routes, in particular the new towns, not just for recreation but for local trips, links to public transport, schools etc. This could be extended to certain parts of the urban area e.g. Kowloon East (but please not for recreational use of narrow pedestrian promenades). Watch out for a forthcoming RTHK programme about the pedestrian and cyclepath planning of Tai Po designed some 40 years ago and the benefits that have ensued; and
Make all government parking areas (i.e. parking within Government buildings for benefit of Government employees) into public parking areas, or abandon them altogether except for service vehicles.
- We need to extend the underlying objectives of this exercise, not simply to reduce traffic flow by 15 percent but to examine the role in improvement to the public realm for residents and visitors/tourists, the economic benefits to the city and the evidence that pedestrianisation stimulates positive changes in people’s use and perception of the city. All these are apparent elsewhere (Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Sydney etc. etc.) and deserve study.
In summary the central issue needs to be about BETTERMENT OF THE CITY.