Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Hong Kong: Some transport observations

Part Two of a series.
In a prior post, the transportation system in Beijing is discussed.  Whereas we were essentially tourists in Beijing,  unfamiliar with the area (it was our first trip to the Chinese capital), we have visited Hong Kong many times and are quite familiar with the city, its layout, and its transportation system. 

Layout and geography.

Unlike Beijing, which stands on a flat plain, unencumbered for the most part by geography, Hong Kong lies on a series of mountainous landforms (mostly islands, and one peninsula off the Asian landmass) which limits how much of the land can be inhabited.  Only about 25% of the land within the Special Autonomous Region is suitable for development--this results in effective urban densities similar to Manhattan--and results in a great transit city.  Much of the land that is used is reclaimed land--areas that used to be water but were filled in by man.   .

Due to the geographic constraints, the freeway network is very irregular; and other than one freeway which crosses into mainland China at Shenzen, are contained entirely within Hong Kong.  An extensive network of tunnels and bridges (such as the Tsing Ma Bridge, pictured) connect the various islands with the Kowloon peninsula (and also tunnel under the mountains immediately north of Kowloon, into the New Territories).  While the freeways themselves are free; tolls are collected at many bridges and tunnels--some of which were constructed (and are operated) by private enterprise.

Like most places which were under British rule or influence at some point during the automobile era, traffic in Hong Kong moves on the left.  Traffic in the mainland moves on the right in the rest of China, and switching ramps can be found at border crossings--nonetheless, it's not unusual to find Chinese vehicles, with steering wheels on the left, operating on Hong Kong roads (or the reverse).

Private vehicle usage is far less than in Beijing--the density makes transit more practical.  Parking is expensive, as is gasoline--so much so that a thriving black market in "duty-free" petrol exists.  Much of the traffic on the freeways consists of transit and/or freight' and much of what remained consisted of luxury automobiles.  Traffic is far less chaotic than in the mainland--traffic laws are strictly enforced by the police, and the freeways are lined with photo-radar installations.  The "anything goes" traffic mentality found in China (and many other developing nations) does not apply to Hong Kong.

Taxis and personal transit

Like Beijing, Hong Kong has a thriving and well-regulated taxi industry; unlike Beijing hiring a cab is expensive (though nowhere near as bad as many US cities).   There's a notable absence of pedicabs and similar vehicles.  One interesting transport mode which is common in Hong Kong, but not replicated in many other places, is the public light bus (pictured)--small (16-passenger, typically) busses which essentially provide jitney service, typically on routes or to areas too small to justify regular bus service.  These come in two colors, red and green.  Green minibuses run on regular routes, like busses, but do not have fixed stops--passengers hail them like taxis, and can request stops in most places along the route where it is safe to do so.  These vehicles serve many less-dense communities in the New Territories.  The red minibus is even more taxi-like in that it has no fixed route.

Public transit.

Hong Kong has an extensive  heavy-rail subway system--the MTR--which concentrates in the urban core areas of northern Hong Kong iIsland (the local equivalent of Manhattan) and Kowloon.  Three spur lines serve Lantau Island (including the airport, Disneyland, and numerous high-rise neighborhoods such as Tung Chung) to the west, and the New Territories to the north.  In the northwestern New Territories towns of Tuen Mun, Yuen Long, and Tin Shui Wai, there is a light rail system (simply called the "light rail") which provides connections among these communities, and to the MTR West Rail.  The light rail isn't terribly fast--although it runs in its own right-of-way, it has high stop density, and frequently has to wait at traffic lights for crossing automobile traffic.  However, given its local function, its speed isn't a terribly big issue, and you seldom have to wait more than five minutes for a train.  If you need a particular train, you may have to wait--one feature of the systems is significant interlining (in some places up to five different routes run on the same track segment).

Hong Kong has numerous other transit apparatus.  The Star Ferry connects Kowloon (Tsim Sha Tsui, to be specific) with Hong Kong Island, and is a popular way to cross the harbor if you're on foot.  (The subway is faster, though more expensive).  A "historic" streetcar runs through the heart of downtown, and is useful for those on its route.  Hong Kong also has numerous pedestrian improvements--from an extensive underground tunnel network integrated with the subways (but which do far more than simply provide access to the trains), to labyrinthine network of skybridges and elevated walkways, to the famous Mid-Levels Escalator.  There's quite a few things which primarily serve tourists as well, such as the Victoria Peak Tram, or the Ngong Ping 360, a gondola line connecting the Tung Ching district near the airport with the "Big Buddha", a popular tourist attraction.

But the core of Hong Kong's transit network is its massive network of busses.

The bus system in Hong Kong goes everywhere, and does it frequently.  The most important component of the bus network are the "franchised busses", which are operated by one of five operating companies under license from the government.  Routes, fares, and schedules are all fixed, and there are over 700 different franchised routes.  Franchised busses operate on the pay-as-you-go principle, and most of the busses used are the double-decker variety.  Riding in the front of the upper level of one of these is an interesting experience, especially a bus barreling down some of the hillier Hong Kong freeways (route 9 east of Tuen Mun, or route 7 pretty much everywhere, are excellent examples).  In addition to the franchised busses are other specific bus services such as airport or hotel shuttles, "estate busses" (which serve specific housing developments), etc.

And no discussion of transit in Hong Kong would be complete without mentioning the Octopus Card, the world's first contactless smartcard system, and still one of the best.  While originally designed for transit (everything but the historic streetcars accept it as payment), it is also used for numerous other things--such as paying for parking or tolls, access to private lots, or buying coffee at 7-11 or McDonalds.  (Hong Kong has many of both chains).  Octopus cards are available in both anonymous and personalized versions, and life in the city would be difficult without one.  (The transit system does accept cash, but you pay more.)


While in Hong Kong, we stated at my wife's grandparents' apartment in Ping Shan, a small "village" located within the Yuen Long district.  The apartment happens to be adjacent to the Ping Shan light rail stop, so the light rail was our primary transit access point (a few busses stop within walking distance, but not many).  Given that the heavy-rail connection (the MTR West Rail line) from Yuen Long is inconvenient for many of the trips we planned to make, we often rode the bus from Yuen Long town center to wherever we were going--in all cases, there was a bus with a single-seat ride and no more than a 12 minute wait.  As a result, in the reverse of the typical situation, we found ourselves using the train as a "feeder" service to the bus network, something which I'm sure Jarrett will appreciate.  :)

In a previous section, I mentioned the freeway tollbooths which guard access to many of the chokepoints in the region (there's about 8 freeway tunnels and several bridges which are tolled).  Busses and taxis passing through the chokepoints have to stop and pay tolls as well (as the busses are privately operated, they don't get a free pass from the road authorities, or from the private entities which operate some of the tunnels).  However, the bus network puts these to good use--since all busses passing through a tollbooth have to slow down for the tollbooth (their tolls are automatically collected, but there are still gates which must be passed through), each tollbooth has, immediately before or after, a bus stop--which serves as a de-facto transit center.  Such stops are generally not located near any useful destination; but are serviced by each bus crossing the gridge or tunnel.  Thus the tollbooth stops are an excellent place for those who need to change busses (or trains--for some of these locations, there's also an MTR stop nearby) to do so. 

One "bug" I noticed in the bus system is that in some places, the sheer volume of stops (and of busses trying to get in and out of stops) would cause bus traffic jams--where busses trying to leave a stop would be blocked by another bus waiting to pull into a stop further ahead.  Nathan Road in Kowloon (a popular shopping corridor) is a common location for these sorts of traffic jams.  If any street in HK would benefit from turning into a transit mall (and closing it to private autos), it's this one.

Hong Kong is a very vertical city--both due to the steep terrain, and due to the endless parade of skyscrapers.  This causes transport links and buildings to mingle in ways that simply aren't seen in much of the west--there are places where freeways tunnel under shopping malls (or pass through skyscrapers), or where shopping mall concourses pass over freeways like a street overpass.  The roads have far less stringent design standard than are found in the US (where congestion avoidance and safety dominate all other concerns, such as humane integration with the surrounding fabric).  As a result, even where there are freeways or boulevards, they have less of an impact on the pedestrian environment than in the US, where highway trenches or viaducts are often viewed as insurmountable obstacles to anyone not in a car--even where there ample protected crossings.  Some of this may be cultural--traffic isn't viewed as much of a nuisance as it is in many less-dense Western cities. 

But Hong Kong--for many reasons, including those related to transport, is a place which simply must be experienced.

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