Generation 40s – 四十世代

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Don’t blame visitors for lack of vision in Hong Kong’s public transport policy

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South China Morning Post
2015-03-31
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Franklin Koo

Franklin Koo says the Hong Kong government’s policy to draw ever more visitors here with little thought about how it might overburden our transport system is what’s really to blame for the overcrowding and congestion

I once wrote that Hong Kong must have the ability to identify and solve its practical problems. Since the end of Occupy Central, many now believe the 47 million mainland visitors are to blame for the city’s troubles.

It is a fact that mainland visitors, along with their luggage, are causing overcrowding, especially on public transport. But do these visitors deserve all the blame, or is it partly due to ineffective policy?

Despite the fact that the local public transport infrastructure is at peak capacity, there are grandiose plans in place, such as the high-speed rail link and the third runway, plus the newly built cruise terminal. It seems that injecting more visitors into Hong Kong is an economic policy that is taking priority over the quality of the lives of normal citizens, while also ignoring the sustainability of our public transport infrastructure.

It is likely that more visitors will generate even more problems, since that will aggravate an already overloaded transport system. Imagine putting more people into a lift and ignoring the overload warning; it is a recipe for disaster.

There are no overload warnings on buses or trains; everything seems fine on the surface. Hong Kong is proud to have a clean, safe and convenient transport system, the reason it received the award for “best city in the world for commuters” in 2014.

The MTR Corporation has just announced a net increase in profits of 19.8 per cent, partly due to a record-breaking 4.5 per cent increase in ridership.

On paper, large profits are made and there is no urgency to fix what is “not broken”, such as dramatically increasing train frequency or imposing strict restrictions against carrying large luggage during peak hours.

It may come as a surprise to outsiders, then, that Hong Kong was ranked a lowly 70th in the world this month for quality of living. Commuting accounts for part of that living, a daily activity that is weaved into the working fabric of Hong Kong.

With the public transport system responsible for moving millions across town each day, it is considered the lifeline of Hong Kong. That said, overcrowding on this very lifeline is like a clogged artery that is in dire need of attention.

Overcrowding creates serious issues. The sheer number of people on each train can stop doors from closing, often taking two or three attempts to securely shut the door at each major station, resulting in delays and stress.

Prolonged exposure to stress may contribute to sudden outbursts, anxiety and negative social effects. The recent protests and uploaded internet videos of arguments between passengers on trains and buses support the findings in American behavioural researcher John B. Calhoun’s rat study that overcrowding leads to increased aggression.

During daily commutes, this stress is intensified. A study by US professor Drury Sherrod argued that a sense of control lessened the negative impact of a crowded environment. So, while Hong Kong is crowded in general, it is less likely to have a negative effect if one can always choose to escape the congestion and go hiking instead.

By contrast, there is no control or choice over a regular commute to and from work. The lack of parking spaces and frequent traffic jams makes driving an unsuitable alternative and carpooling a challenge. In addition, tightly packed environments pose a serious health risk. Crowds can increase the likelihood of rapidly spreading a contagious disease due to reduced ventilation, and this is especially worrisome given the recent deadly flu outbreak.

The adverse health effects caused by stress strains the public health system as well. According to a map of suicides from 2005 to 2010, higher rates of suicides were found in the northern areas of Hong Kong compared to Hong Kong Island. This finding is troubling. Difficulty in relocation due to the city’s exorbitant housing costs and the lengthy and more expensive commutes could be reasons for this geographical discrepancy.

So one can hardly blame mainland visitors when the government has not taken drastic action. Large projects continue to dictate that more visitors must continue to come to Hong Kong, or the schemes risk becoming white elephants.

This may be a path to more record-breaking profits for some, but the result of congested public transport is a serious health and social concern that affects everyone.

There is no point in blaming or threatening mainland visitors when it is our border control and economic policy that require careful review.

Franklin Koo is an accredited mediator and author of Power to the People: Extending the Jury to the Hong Kong District Court.

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