Paul Stapleton says the government’s reluctance to substantially raise penalties for traffic violations and parking meter fees indicates a lack of commitment to curbing congestion and pollution. However, the unrestricted growth in the number of private cars on the roads is the core problem
Two news items last week illustrated the perverse logic of Hong Kong legislators regarding the realities of moving around the city. The first was the news of the 25 per cent increase in fines for five traffic violations.
On June 1 this year, drivers who violate one of the five, such as illegal U-turns, will pay a fine of HK$400, up from HK$320. The last time the fine was raised was in 1994. In other words, with the increase, the new fine hardly reaches 21st-century pricing levels once inflation is taken into account.
The government originally proposed a more reasonable, but still paltry and overly generous 50 per cent increase, which included several more infractions; however, a Legislative Council subcommittee of both pro-democracy and pro-establishment members, balked at this so the government had to settle for a measly 25 per cent.
The second item was about a proposed increase in parking meter fees. Similar to the increase for driving violations, the government proposed doubling the maximum metered parking fee, in existence since 1994, to at least HK$4 or HK$5 for every 15 minutes.
Once again, however, our elected officials found this increase too high and proposed a much smaller rise.
This myopic view held by our elected representatives in opposing reasonable increases in driving fines and fees is yet another example of legislators failing to see the forest for the trees. Here, the “trees” are the supposedly unfair penalties imposed on drivers.
The lawmakers’ rationale is that a large increase will only punish the poor, and commercial vehicle drivers. Instead, they argue that the solution is to increase the number of parking spaces. But this completely ignores the larger forest, which is the fact that car owners in Hong Kong represent less than 10 per cent of the population, yet they contribute a staggeringly oversized proportion to congestion and air pollution that is suffered innocently by the other 90 per cent.
Just what is wrong with penalising drivers of private vehicles in a city that has arguably the best public transport system in the world?
With private vehicle growth at about three per cent a year (against negligible growth in the number of roads), why shouldn’t drivers of private vehicles be heavily penalised?
Higher fines and fees could act as an incentive for drivers to take public transport, which in turn would reduce congestion, all to the benefit of the eco-warriors taking the bus.
In effect, however, the raising of traffic fees and fines is a stopgap measure that does little to address the real problem, which is obviously that there are no controls on the number of private cars on the road. With thousands more cars on our roads each year, more creative solutions are called for.
Here, our lawmakers need not reinvent the wheel. Both Singapore and London have successfully reduced congestion through electronic road pricing. The model has been tried and tested. All we need is the leadership to take the first steps.
Several years ago, when I moved into a New Territories flat that overlooks an expressway, traffic jams below my apartment were rare. In the past couple of years, casual glances out of the window inform me they are much more frequent during rush hour, and almost guaranteed when the weather is wet. With dozens more cars coming on our roads every single day without any new roads being constructed, this is both unsurprising and unsustainable.
Driving in this city is not a necessity; it is a privilege, and the makeshift increases in fines and parking fees do nothing to address the underlying problem.
Isn’t it time for our leaders to consider the other 95 per cent who stand on motionless buses during their daily commute while breathing in the exhaust of all those private cars?
Paul Stapleton comments on local social and environmental issues