February 12th, 2012

Auto Invasion

Hong Kong Traffic

Photo by Charlotte Huang

Hong Kong’s not a big place, and with 28 million mainland Chinese visitors a year, it’s beginning to feel even more crowded than usual. The stress seems to have gotten to a lot of people. Over the past month, a handful of seemingly banal conflicts between Hongkongers and mainland tourists have been amplified beyond all proportion.

An argument over spilled noodles in the MTR somehow led to a Peking University professor calling Hong Kong people “dogs” and “bastards” who should speak Mandarin instead of Cantonese. An ill-advised remark by a Dolce & Gabbana security guard, who said that Hong Kong people are banned from taking photos of the shop but mainlanders aren’t, sparked an online firestorm and protests in the street. Mainland women who come to Hong Kong to have their babies delivered in local hospitals, thus ensuring Hong Kong residency for their children, were called “locusts” in a full-page printed in Apple Daily, Hong Kong’s second-most-read newspaper.

Now, the latest source of controversy: a government plan to allow mainland Chinese visitors to bring their cars into Hong Kong, despite the mainland’s notoriously poor standards of driving and the perils of operating a left-hand-drive car on the opposite side of the road — not to mention Hong Kong’s worsening congestion and air pollution. Those are some of the concerns of the thousands of people who have pledged their support for various Facebook protests, which call for the government to scrap its scheme. They are being joined in their demands by a coalition of environmental groups, social activists and opposition political parties.

“Drivers don’t obey the rules on the mainland,” says Kay Lam, a columnist for Apple Daily, who started a Facebook group opposed to the scheme. “Why would they follow the rules here? One mistake could be fatal. When it comes to safety, there should be no compromises.”

The government’s plan is based on a 2010 agreement made with authorities in the mainland province of Guangdong, which borders Hong Kong. Starting next month, Hong Kong motorists will be able to apply for a limited number of cross-border driving permits. Later, Guangdong drivers may do the same, giving them a chance to bring their cars to Hong Kong. When I asked a spokeswoman for the Transport and Housing Bureau for details, I was told that “there is not yet a concrete timetable” and the specifics still need to be hammered out.

“We understand the community’s concerns over the trial scheme,” she told me. “We will implement the trial scheme in a gradual manner, and will carefully consider the capacity of the control point and road networks on both sides, impact on air quality as well as other related factors, when deciding on the number of quotas. We will definitely start from a small number, and will ensure that our traffic, road safety and environment will not be adversely affected.“

That’s cold comfort to the scheme’s opponents, who say that, while the number of mainland cars allowed here will be small at first, it will increase significantly in the future.

“It won’t stop at 50 or 100 cars — it will inevitably increase in the future,” says Civic Party lawmaker Audrey Eu, who has launched a petition to cancel the scheme. “The government has a duty to tell the public what the whole plan is.”

The government has also said that mainland drivers entering Hong Kong must have clean driving records, and they must be familiar with Hong Kong’s road rules, which are notably different from those on the mainland. But opponents are concerned that enforcement will be lax. Reports have proliferated online of mainland vehicles breaking traffic laws in Hong Kong. Photos and videos have been posted on Facebook of mainland cars parked on sidewalks, running through red lights and otherwise violating traffic laws. Many mainland vehicles have dark tinted windows, which are banned in Hong Kong.

In 2009, a Shenzhen ambulance was spotted on Robinson Road with sirens on and emergency lights flashing, which prompted Eu to demand an investigation. In response, Secretary for Transport and Housing Eva Cheng said that the government has “closely monitored the situation and will take appropriate action if necessary,” but no prosecutions were made.

Eu is also concerned that websites on the mainland openly advertise cross-border vehicles for hire, which is illegal. She expects the problem would become worse if more cars from the mainland are allowed to enter Hong Kong.

Photos like this one, depicting a mainland car driving through a red light in Kowloon, have proliferated online

So why would the Hong Kong government push ahead with a plan that has so many potential problems? The answer, in part, is to justify its multi-billion-dollar investment in cross-border highways like the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge. At current traffic levels, the HK$83 billion bridge would be half-empty when it opens in 2016.

“We have built a lot of new crossings and the capacity is very high, but the government has problems making sure all this road space is being utilised,” says Hung WIng-tat, an associate professor of civil engineering at Polytechnic University “They’ve decided they have to find a way to produce some traffic, otherwise they are all big white elephants.”

Thing is, increasing the number of cars in Hong Kong runs contrary to the government’s own policies. Last year, Eva Cheng blamed worsening congestion on a rapid increase in the number of private vehicles over the past five years. Though Hong Kong has an extraordinarily low rate of car ownership — just 5 percent of the population — it is becoming more popular to own a car, and the number of new private vehicles has soared by 20 percent in the past five years. Given Hong Kong’s lack of road space, this has been bad news for traffic, which has slowed to a crawl.

None of this bodes well for air quality. “The slower traffic moves and the more it stops and starts the more polluting it is,” says Mike Kilburn, head of environmental strategy for Civic Exchange. A study published last year by researchers from the University of Science and Technology found that gridlocked traffic produces significantly more nitrogen dioxide than free-flowing traffic. Another study found that Hong Kong’s roadside air pollution is worse than all other major cities in China, except for Urumqi, and it has continued to worsen over the past 10 years.

At this point, it’s impossible to say whether the government will back down or insist on going ahead with this plan. It has real staying power, because it combines two hot-button issues: Hong Kong’s relationship with the mainland and the worsening quality of the urban environment, which is growing more polluted, more crowded and less humane every year.

The real crux of the matter is the Hong Kong government’s lack of vision when it comes to urban development and transport planning. From afar, its policy to prioritize public transport above all else looks spectacularly successful. Less than 10 percent of the population gets around by car; the rest make their way around the city by rail and bus. But look closer and you begin to see a number of serious problems. Even as it promotes the expansion of new MTR lines, the government maintains a parallel policy of indefinitely expanding road capacity by building new highways and arterial roads, which surely contributes to the rapidly increasing rate of car ownership. It also maintains a loophole in building codes that gives developers incentive to build large parking garages, which means that many new residential and office developments have a surplus of parking spots.

The privately-operated bus system is a mess, with an ageing fleet that doesn’t meet the latest emission standards. Overlapping routes and poorly-placed bus stops create congestion in neighbourhoods like Mongkok and Causeway Bay. Two of Hong Kong’s three cross-harbour road tunnels are privately-owned and the government has no say in toll charges, so most drivers opt for the overburdened, government-owned Cross-Harbour Tunnel, which is half the price of the others and is always jammed with traffic. Instead of finding a way to equalize the tolls, lobbyists from the construction industry have long pressured the government to build a fourth cross-harbour tunnel.

To add insult to injury, Hong Kong Island’s century-old tram system continues to lose passengers, despite its convenient routes and low fare, because the government has continued to remove reserved tram lanes and give them to vehicular traffic. That has reduced tram speeds to such an extent that it’s too slow to be of use to most passengers.

Now you can add mainland cars to the list of woes. “The influx will happen eventually,” says Hung Wing-tat. He suggests the creation of park-and-ride facilities near border crossings, where mainland visitors could leave their cars and take public transport into town. “But right now, the government has no policy for dealing with any of this.”


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