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.  

 
 
 
 

To make electric vehicles happen, the government must devolve energy policy to councils

The future. Image: Getty.

Last week, the Guardian revealed that at least a quarter of councils have halted the roll-out of electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure with no plans to resume its installation. This is a fully charged battery-worth of miles short of ideal, given the ambitious decarbonisation targets to which the UK is rightly working.

It’s even more startling given the current focus on inclusive growth, for the switch to EVs is an economic advancement, on an individual and societal level. Decarbonisation will free up resources and push growth, but the way in which we go about it will have impacts for generations after the task is complete.

If there is one lesson that has been not so much taught to us as screamed at us by recent history, it is that the market does not deliver inclusivity by itself. Left to its own devices, the market tends to leave people behind. And people left behind make all kinds of rational decisions, in polling stations and elsewhere that can seem wholly irrational to those charged with keeping pace – as illuminted in Jeremy Harding’s despatch from the ‘periphery’ which has incubated France’s ‘gilet jaunes’ in the London Review of Books.

But what in the name of Nikola Tesla has any of this to do with charging stations? The Localis argument is simple: local government must work strategically with energy network providers to ensure that EV charging stations are rolled out equally across areas, to ensure deprived areas do not face further disadvantage in the switch to EVs. To do so, Ofgem must first devolve certain regulations around energy supply and management to our combined authorities and city regions.


Although it might make sense now to invest in wealthier areas where EVs are already present, if there isn’t infrastructure in place ahead of demand elsewhere, then we risk a ‘tale of two cities’, where decarbonisation is two-speed and its benefits are two-tier.

The Department for Transport (DfT) announced on Monday that urban mobility will be an issue for overarching and intelligent strategy moving forward. The issue of fairness must be central to any such strategy, lest it just become a case of more nice things in nice places and a further widening of the social gap in our cities.

This is where the local state comes in. To achieve clean transport across a city, more is needed than just the installation of charging points.  Collaboration must be coordinated between many of a place’s moving parts.

The DfT announcement makes much of open data, which is undoubtedly crucial to realising the goal of a smart city. This awareness of digital infrastructure must also be matched by upgrades to physical infrastructure, if we are going to realise the full network effects of an integrated city, and as we argue in detail in our recent report, it is here that inclusivity can be stitched firmly into the fabric.

Councils know the ins and outs of deprivation within their boundaries and are uniquely placed to bring together stakeholders from across sectors to devise and implement inclusive transport strategy. In the switch to EVs and in the wider Future of Mobility, they must stay a major player in the game.

As transport minister and biographer of Edmund Burke, Jesse Norman has been keen to stress the founding Conservative philosopher’s belief in the duty of those living in the present to respect the traditions of the past and keep this legacy alive for their own successors.

If this is to be a Burkean moment in making the leap to the transformative transport systems of the future, Mr Norman should give due attention to local government’s role as “little platoons” in this process: as committed agents of change whose civic responsibility and knowledge of place can make this mobility revolution happen.

Joe Fyans is head of research at the think tank Localis.