To make water transport work, London should look to Hong Kong

Hong Kong's Star Ferry goes about its business. Image: Getty.

If you’re a Londoner, you could be forgiven for dismissing ferries as the stuff of rip-off tourist trips and one-time novelty outfits.

Despite various attempts by TfL and the Mayor’s office to make them seem like a credible option for commuters, London’s ferries are, at best, a bit embarrassing. They run vaguely and half-heartedly between Putney, Westminster, the City, and Docklands. A journey can set you back £7.20 if you’re in possession of an Oyster card, and £8.20 if you’re not.

They’re not exactly practical, either. A journey from, say, Embankment Pier to Canary Wharf for a morning commute – ignoring for a moment the fact that nobody actually lives at, on, or near Embankment Pier – takes 29 minutes via the RB1 route (River Bus 1, for those lacking in Holmesian deductive abilities). It’s a 21-minute ride via the slightly speedier RB6. The journey by tube takes 15 minutes.

It’s a pretty bleak picture: expensive, sluggish, and generically corporate without the blissful accompaniment of smooth efficiency. The last time a real-life human was heard uttering the words “My morning commute is so quick and easy I just hop on the RB3 and I’m at the office in a jiffy” was approximately never.

Elsewhere, though, it’s a different story. On the other side of the planet, Hong Kong offers one model of how to make the ferry work as a means of public transport. The Star Ferry is a veteran of the system, founded in 1888 as the Kowloon Ferry Company, and still nips back and forth across Victoria Harbour at an impressive speed.

In the interests of full disclosure, the Star Ferry has most definitely seen better days. Alternative means of transport have left the service out on a limb, and in 2011 it shut one of its key routes, between Hung Hom (no giggling at the back, please), Central, and Wan Chai. This was in part no doubt due to the relocation of the Central ferry terminal from Edinburgh Place (just outside the City Hall) to Man Kwong Street (a generic and tedious covered walk away from the International Finance Centre) in 2006. But there’s no doubt that Hong Kong’s ferries aren’t at their zenith.

These caveats aside, though, they still chug along happily, and the atmosphere on them is nothing like on London’s boats. They’re not entirely tourist-dominated, and travelling on them at rush-hour has more in common with taking a commuting-hour Piccadilly line train with a couple of Heathrow-bound passengers than it does with  hopping aboard a so-called “River Bus” at teatime in London.

Indeed, that’s part of the point. Travelling on the Hong Kong metro at rush hour is a complete nightmare of crushing human flesh and a totally un-British lack of personal space. Though the metro crosses the harbour in just a fraction of the ferry’s time, I raced a friend from one side to the other – they took the metro, I took the ferry –and, thanks to hordes of humans pushing up against the doors of full train after full train, I just about beat them.

Aboard the Star Ferry. Image: Getty.

They’re still pretty cheap, too, especially considering Hong Kong’s status as one of the most expensive cities in the world. A single trip from the centre of the city – the imaginatively named “Central” – to Tsim Sha Tsui, the principal neighbourhood across the harbour, sets you back HK$2.0. That translates to about 20p in post-Brexit sterling, or 17p in the good old days of before 23 June. Which is really not bad at all.

The service seems to matter to Hongkongers, too. In the sixties, a 25 per cent increase in fares was proposed. In protest, a student went on hunger strike at the old Edinburgh Place terminal; his arrest was a trigger for the 1966 Hong Kong riots in which dozens were injured and almost 2,000 arrested.

Just a few years ago, the aforementioned relocation of the Central pier sparked petitions, protests, sit-ins, and a march on the Government’s HQ. One of the protestors was a monk by the name of So Sau Chung – the student who’d protested the fare increase some forty years previously.

Hong Kong’s ferries aren’t just relics from the past – they’re a key relief for the city’s congested transport networks, and an important part of the city’s psyche as an island city and a harbour city.

If London wants to make its waterways pull their weight as part of a public transport network, they need to be both useful and enjoyable. The Thames is beautiful, but if its River Bus services are no more than a pleasant novelty, they can’t serve any useful purpose.

Reducing the fares would be a start, as would better integration with other means of transport. Would the world end if River Bus lines were included on the Tube & Rail maps up around stations? Probably not. Would that encourage more people to use them, relieving other services? Almost certainly.

London could make better use its other waterways, too. A River Lea stopping service could be a valuable addition. Such a service would connect Tottenham Hale (change here for the Victoria line and National Rail services), Hackney Wick (London Overground), Bromley-by-Bow (Hammersmith & City, District) and Canning Town (Jubilee & DLR). It would show that east London means business, whilst also pandering to the whimsy of its resident hipsters.

A Regent’s Canal service might be more challenging, thanks to locks and the preponderance of canal boats. Were it possible, though, it could connect more residential areas such as Westbourne Park (Hammersmith & City, Circle) and Warwick Avenue (Bakerloo) with cultural and business centres in Camden, Angel, and King’s Cross. You could even throw in a handy plug-in to the rail system at Paddington Basin.

Other global cities have shown that there is a role for waterways in the hectic crush of a modern urban public transport network. If an upstart crow like Hong Kong can make a success of cross-harbour transport in the 21st century, it’s about time that London – the grandfather maritime hub of the world – steps up to the plate.

Or the Basin.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.