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 build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.