Mike Rowse says air pollution caused by the combination of traffic congestion and tall buildings has created a health crisis that can only be tackled by cracking down on the number of vehicles on the roads
It is a basic duty of governments to maintain the health and safety of their citizens to the maximum extent possible. If they can’t do that, then they don’t deserve to call themselves governments.
There are two policy areas where our government is close to failing in its duty (some would say has failed): roadside air pollution and peak-hour public transport. The issues are connected, but what is really alarming is that the problems are well documented, the solutions are well known and readily available, yet the likely outcome is that nothing will be done until it is too late. This suggests we have a fundamental problem of governance.
The subject of air pollution is broad and multifaceted. There is the cross-border aspect because of industrial activity in Guangdong province. There is a marine aspect because our busy harbour is close to the urban area. Some measures have been implemented to address these issues in recent years, though many would say too little, too late. To be fair, we should also acknowledge the greater use of cleaner fuels in power generation. Despite these modest improvements, air pollution is thought to cause five premature deaths per day in Hong Kong, and contribute to the deaths of around 20,000 Hongkongers per year.
Specifically on roadside air pollution, Hong Kong has a particular problem because of the “canyon effect”, where we have a large number of tall buildings in proximity. The major cause here is emissions from motor vehicles.
There has been explosive growth in the number of private cars during the last 10 years. We now have over 750,000 vehicles of all types on our roads, more than 540,000 of which (over 70 per cent) are private cars. Their direct contribution to roadside air pollution is modest – probably under 5 per cent. But their very presence on the road in such large numbers creates congestion. These vehicles would cause a lot less pollution if they were able to move more freely.
Which brings us to transport policy. The mainstay of our public transport system is our railway network. This is world-class and does a great job. But as anyone who uses it during peak hours will know – and I suspect this does not include our ministers – the MTR is getting dangerously overcrowded at certain times. The extensions to existing lines and construction of new ones are welcome but at key interchanges, they will bring more passengers and exacerbate the problem. At Admiralty, the situation is already dangerous, tolerable only because of the good sense and behaviour of passengers. This is a disaster waiting to happen.
To reduce the overcrowding and danger, our railway needs to be supplemented by a well-planned network of bus routes. But no matter how good the planning is, it will be to no avail if the vehicles are not moving freely. We do not need more buses on the road: we just need the ones we already have to be able to make more and faster journeys.
Here, the roadside air pollution and peak-hour transport overcrowding problems come together. We must halt the growth in the number of private cars on Hong Kong roads and then take bold steps to reduce the total. We cannot rely on fiscal means alone to achieve this as Hong Kong is a wealthy society and some people will always be prepared to stump up. That means we have to introduce a permit system.
There are various ways in which this might be done. People wishing to buy a car could be invited to bid for one of the limited number of permits to be issued each year (whether by lucky draw or highest offer is open to discussion). Existing owners of cars over a certain age, say 10 years, would also need to secure a permit before their car is relicensed. Any such scheme would be wildly unpopular with owners, but unless draconian steps are taken, the roadside air pollution and transport safety situations will deteriorate.
We cannot continue with a situation where the environment department just records how bad things are, the health department tries to treat the afflicted, while the transport department passively licenses increasing numbers of private cars which add pollution and increase congestion. That is not joined-up government and it is time we had some.
Mike Rowse is the CEO of Treloar Enterprises.