No, Hong Kong has the best transport system in the world

A man awaits his train on the MTR, Hong Kong. Image: Getty.

Continuing our battle of the metros...

It is likely that many of you will have found using your local public transport an uncomfortable experience – that the amount of difficulty and unease necessary to use it was way out of proportion to the amount of enjoyment or utility derived from the journey itself. This is probably because you were not riding on some part of Hong Kong’s public transport network, which is, I would argue, the best in the world.

Hong Kong, the city-state situated on the mouth of the Pearl River delta in southern China, has one of the highest public transport usership rates in the world. And it’s easy to see why: travelling on Hong Kong’s transport network is an experience of sheer joy. A typical working day in Hong Kong begins and ends with a contemplation over which type of transport to use. The MTR (Hong Kong’s rail network)? Or perhaps the tram? One of the armoured-personal carrier-like buses? Or even a ferry?

All such journeys are paid for using the ubiquitous ‘Octopus card’essentially a travelcard that you can pay for anything with. (Wanna pay for library photocopying? Use your Octopus.)

The development of Hong Kong’s multi-layered transport network was made necessary by two basic characterises of the region: a rapidly increasing population, in part due to immigration from Mainland China, coupled with a small land area would make a transport system centred around the private car unworkable.

The majority of the 12.6m passenger-trips that take place each day in Hong Kong are via the MTR rapid-transit network. Although it only opened in 1979, the network has rapidly expanded to almost every corner of the ‘Special Administrative Region’ since. The most recent extension, to the southern side of Hong Kong Island itself, arrived in December 2016; but its construction programme was mired in scandal and controversy, thanks to repeated delays and spiralling costs.

The MTR system map. 

The tiling of each station is colour-coded, the trains are air-conditioned – a  merciful release, given the climate – and wi-fi is freely available in all the carriages. Even during rush hour at Admiralty, the hub of Hong Kong’s legal sector, the exceedingly wide platforms easily distribute the large crowds. And the frequent – and rarely late – trains mean peak-hours are no true impediment to travelling.

So far, so functional. But what really sets the MTR network apart is the extent to which each individual station stretches like a labyrinth across the cityscape.

Take my local station, Sai Ying Pun on the Island Line. You can walk in from one entrance and emerge, after a crisp travellator journey, in a different area of town altogether. Or, if you’re alighting in the centre of town, you can seamlessly exit the station into a towering shopping centre. It’s hard to imagine a better integrated network.


One caveat is in order: people stand on both sides of the escalator. It is hard to find the right words to describe how this I feel about this without descending into cheap hyperbole. I will merely say that this makes me feel like shooting myself into the sun. In a metro network defined by its commitment to functionality, the acceptance of this behaviour baffles me.

But not everything about Hong Kong is like living in a libertarian fever dream. During my short commute I am moved by the regularity with which I see couples, obviously working jobs at different stops, sharing a short hug or embrace before they disembark; or the looks of utter horror if an individual does not give up their seat for an elderly traveller. As the Los Angeles Times’ food critic Jonathan Gold, who died recently, once said: “We are all citizens of the world; we are all strangers together” – and it is observing moments such as this these, which allow you, even for a second, to feel a little bit closer to the stranger sat next to you, on the machined aluminium seating of a MTR train.

Alternative routes

So what if you need to travel across the island in a narrow strip and the MTR doesn’t take your fancy? What then?

Oooh, a tram. Image: Getty.

Well, then, there’s the tram network awaiting your custom. Hong Kong operates the only fleet of double-decker trams in the world, and for the bizarrely low price of HK$2.30 (£0.22!), you can step into this relic from the colonial era. For my money, it is also the source of the greatest minute for minute enjoyment that can be gleaned legally on any public transport system. Riding atop one these jerking land-beasts better resembles theme park ride than a journey in a highly organised transport network.

The Star Ferry – another Hong Kong classic– also falls under the heading of, “It is ludicrous that something so pretty only costs 50p”. Running from the island piers to the mainland on Kowloon side, the journey between the two has sadly been progressively shortened by successive waves of land reclamation. Lasting all of ten minutes, the Star Ferry remains the most stately way of traversing the harbour – if you don’t mind feeling like a tourist or potentially being late for work).

Sure, the Ferry might be outmoded by several tunnels across the harbour, and the trams now seem overwhelmed by the surrounding traffic. But, if you love Hong Kong, as I have come to, and you have ten minutes before or after work and want to experience something beautiful, then you do not need to travel any further than the pier or the tramway.

Modern transports systems often bare the fundamental utility of their purpose overtly. In Hong Kong, with its trams and Star Ferry, it is possible to experience something much subtler: forms of transit that are truly embedded within the city they serve.  

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.