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.  

 
 
 
 

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.