Generation 40s – 四十世代

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Red light on private cars needed in Hong Kong to curb roadside pollution

CommentInsight & Opinion

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.

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Why inching forward on traffic fines and parking fees won’t halt Hong Kong’s congestion woes

CommentInsight & Opinion
2018-01-23

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?

Most Hong Kong commuters use public transport, such as the MTR and public buses. Photo: Edward WongWith 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


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Asia’s world city? Hong Kong is mediocre at best, if we’re honest

CommentInsight & Opinion
2017-11-21
Peter Kammerer says stagnant Hong Kong, with its low liveability rankings, need only look at Melbourne to see what a real globalised city offers residents by way of living
standards and civil liberties

Hong Kong’s government has been throwing around that tired old “Asia’s world city” tag since 2001. Anyone who gets to experience what’s on offer elsewhere knows that’s not true; it may arguably have been once, but no longer. We’ve fallen so far behind on representing global standards and values that such a claim is a joke. It’s time to rebrand, with an eye on honesty.

This was brought starkly home during a recent trip to Melbourne. I worked there in the mid-1980s and found it a pleasant enough city, but not sufficiently special to make me stay longer than two years. I moved to Hong Kong and was captivated. But the longer you stay somewhere, the more comfortable and less demanding you get; and I realise I’ve become far too complacent.

Melbourne has moved ahead by leaps and bounds since I lived there, which makes me realise how little Hong Kong has changed.

There’s culture, art and sophistication in downtown Melbourne; pedestrian precincts, roadside dining, street art and performance, free inner-city trams and large areas set aside for leisure pursuits – all with pristine air to breathe. This is a place that thinks about people and puts them first.

I’m not the only one impressed. The Economist Intelligence Unit has, for the past seven years, put Melbourne at the top of its annual global liveability ranking of 140 cities (Hong Kong placed 45th in the latest, and Singapore 35th). Lifestyle magazine Monocle’s top 25 liveable cities list for 2017 has Melbourne at number five, with Tokyo at the top, Hong Kong 15th and Singapore 21st. US consulting firm Mercer’s yearly quality of living study for expatriates ranked Melbourne at 16th, with Vienna at the top and Singapore 25th. Hong Kong only managed 71st.

These studies take into account factors like rights and freedoms, social and political stability, infrastructure, food prices, rent, public transport, education and air quality. Australian, Canadian and Western European cities usually take the top spots. In Asia, Japanese cities fare best, with Hong Kong and Singapore close behind.

Given that the research is by European and North American firms, their results understandably reflect liberal Western viewpoints.

In a world of globalised business, employment and education, it’s right to expect certain standards. Rule of law, freedom of speech and expression, and a reasonable quality of living are as essential as infrastructure, to attract major firms and talented employees. A city that doesn’t offer such fundamentals is bound to lose out. Cities are expected to follow trends and make improvements.

Melbourne has done that well and it’s paying off, with a booming economy and population growth in line to make it Australia’s biggest city by 2031. Hong Kong hasn’t had such dynamism. Worse, for all the gloating of the government’s Brand Hong Kong website about the city being “anchored on the bedrock of the rule of law”, with a “fair and stable society that cherishes freedom of expression”, there are those among us who increasingly have their doubts.

Recent comments by Beijing officials, court rulings and a continued lack of genuine democracy are just the start. High poverty levels, unfair treatment of ethnic minorities and the elderly, congested traffic and bad air quality say much; there’s been little, if any, change since we started contending to be a world city.

Those denied gay marriage, bike riders told they can’t have cycle lanes in urban areas, those lamenting the lack of outdoor eateries and shopping zones free of vehicles and diesel-choked streets, make plain we’re not what we claim to be.

So let’s rebrand. The obvious choice is Asia’s Mediocre City.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post


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People-first transport system eludes Hong Kong even as other cities race ahead

CommentInsight & Opinion
2017-11-07

Peter Kammerer finds it hard to understand why, with its wealth of information and financial resources, the Hong Kong government is not adopting any of the bold ideas that are giving advanced societies cleaner air and a higher standard of living

 

Hong Kong’s top officials travel the world for meetings and to look for new ideas. They see and experience the best and our trillions of dollars in spare cash makes it easy for them to adapt and adopt.

Yet, on any given working day at rush hour, our so-called premier districts of Central and Causeway Bay are bottlenecks of people and vehicles, congested, polluted and unpleasant. The conclusion can only be either that the people who run the city on our behalf don’t much care about us or that they’re part of the sector of society that prizes cars as a status symbol.

It’s a different story in major cities in Europe and North America, where there’s a push for people-first downtowns. Roads are being given over to pedestrians and cyclists and, increasingly, electric cars. Public transport systems are being expanded. It’s all in the name of clean air, healthy living and, yes, “people first”.

Even Singapore has caught on. The government has announced it would stop issuing additional licences for cars and motorbikes from [2]February, keeping growth at zero per cent, because there simply wasn’t enough land for more roads. The move is in addition to taxes and fees that make car ownership in the island nation among the world’s most expensive.

Hong Kong has the same land scarcity problem, but our car numbers are going up. Some 11,955 additional private vehicles were registered from January to August, compared to 15,151 for all of 2016. Hong Kong has long been near the top of global lists of cities with the most vehicles per kilometre of road. Street-level air pollution hits unhealthy levels in the busiest districts numerous times a year.

There aren’t any new plans to make changes, either. A much-delayed road tunnel from Central to Causeway Bay has long been touted as the solution to congestion on Hong Kong Island. It has been given as the reason there’s no need to introduce electronic road pricing in Central; there’s no alternative route, the explanation goes, so no need to follow in the footsteps of Singapore, London and others.

Secretary for Transport and Housing Frank Chan Fan doesn’t even see any urgency about raising the first-registration tax for new car purchases, believing it to be a last resort and favouring soft approaches like discouraging ownership by making public transport more user-friendly. Keep in mind that this is a man who contended last month that car ownership was rising because young people were unable to afford homes and were buying cars instead to “ let body and soul wander off once in a while”. Well, if this is the guy in charge, those of us who want a better city are obviously fated to be bitterly disappointed.

But let’s be positive and believe that our government has our needs and desires at heart. Our leaders may be unelected, but they’re among the highest-paid officials in the world and they’re using our tax money, so they have an obligation to do right by us, surely. I’m not being naive here, simply mindful that a refusal to get with global trends will make Hong Kong ever more backward in the eyes of potential expatriates, tourists and forward-looking residents.

For inspiration, think Singapore or Vancouver, where a 10-year vision for better transport is under way. We can go even better with Oslo. The Norwegian capital is on course to keep its inner-city car-free by 2019. Paris, Madrid, Dublin and Milan have similar, though smaller-scale, plans. In Oslo, the first of its on-street parking will go later this year, to be replaced by wider footpaths and cycle lanes. The focus is on walking, cycling and public transport. This is the future we need, not more of the same and worse.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post


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China accelerates towards a driverless future as Hong Kong stalls

CommentInsight & Opinion
2017-10-26
Wilson Wong says mainland China’s intensive investment and flexible workforce make it the ‘holy grail’ for autonomous cars, in contrast to Hong Kong, where concerns about job losses dominate thinking

Today’s cities are on the precipice of a technological breakthrough, driven in part by a once-moribund automotive industry, now bolstered by revolutionary advances in microchip, sensor and artificial intelligence technologies and evolving into a cutting-edge industry dominated by hyper-intelligent networked autonomous driving systems.

The idea of an encroaching future where highly advanced driverless cars are inextricably intertwined with homes, infrastructure such as roads and bridges, offices and drones (also considered autonomous vehicles) is no longer a flight of fantasy, but imminent reality. The dawn of this sea-changing technology will significantly affect China, the world’s largest automotive market. Moreover, the Middle Kingdom has every intention of dominating this emerging field (part of its “Made in China 2025” mission) and the government has asserted that it would like to have highly, or fully, autonomous vehicles for sale by as early as 2021.

By 2026-2030, Chinese authorities plan to have some degree of automated or assisted driving system in every vehicle in the country. The sheer commercial potential of this impending technology explains China’s overwhelming interest; by 2035, the Boston Consulting Group asserts that the global driverless car market could be valued at US$77 billion (impressive, considering the industry is still nascent today).

China is blighted by reckless driving (more than 250,000 deaths annually in road accidents), pollution and massive traffic congestion, so the driverless car could be an idea whose time has come. Relative newcomers to the world of driving, many Chinese do not share the West’s love affair with it. This is clear from a 2015 World Economic Forum survey, where three-quarters of the Chinese polled said they would have no issue riding in a self-driving car, vis-à-vis half of their American counterparts.

A damaged sports car is pictured after it collided with another car on a road in Yiwu city in Zhejiang province, in April 2016. A high number of traffic accidents, coupled with ongoing congestion and pollution, have contributed to China’s interest in driverless vehicles. Photo: Imaginechina

Considering the immense scale of China’s bold autonomous vehicle ambitions, there will be no lack of doubters. For starters, laws governing autonomous vehicle use are non-existent despite the impending deadline. To be fair, the US itself is still sorting out this potential regulatory minefield.

The Chinese committee (supported by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology) has only in the past year or so started examining all the infrastructure and regulatory guidelines related to autonomous driving.

Despite the obfuscation surrounding the regulatory frameworks on autonomous driving, leading Chinese technology firms such as Baidu (China’s answer to Google) have made impressive strides on the technical front. By 2016, the company said its autonomous vehicles possessed driving capabilities comparable to that of a fledgling driver; in general, many autonomous vehicles are still prone to stopping abruptly and relatively clumsy manoeuvring. In a daring act of corporate bravado, Baidu chief executive Robin Li drove his company’s yet-to-be-approved driverless vehicle across the streets of Beijing, earning the ire of authorities.

Despite the relative progress by the mainland in autonomous vehicles, Hong Kong has not made comparable advances nor does it seem to share the same ardour for this buoyant field. The Transport and Housing Bureau says most trials of driverless technology are still at the preliminary stages.

By contrast, Singapore, Hong Kong’s perennial rival, has secured the distinction of organising the world’s first trial run of six driverless taxis (albeit in a limited four-square-km area) in August 2016; the road to a driverless future is not entirely smooth, however, as one of the autonomous cabs collided with a truck barely two months after the successful trial.

In Hong Kong, as with many cities, some experts argue that the issue of acceptance rather than technology per se remains the greatest obstacle to successful widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles. In truth, it could be the technology’s capacity to inflict significant damage on the jobs front (at least in the short term) that has hampered implementation. In Hong Kong’s case, the impact of this revolutionary technology on the livelihood of the city’s 40,000 taxi drivers concerns policymakers; the same fate could await thousands of bus drivers steering Hong Kong’s extensive network of double-deckers and minibuses. Similar concerns have also been expressed about the technology’s impact on the job security of the city’s numerous delivery truck and van drivers. In a city already buffeted by skyrocketing property prices and escalating income inequality, the prospect of widespread unemployment among working-class drivers presents a tinderbox for this highly strung metropolis.

Conversely, in mainland China, with its considerably larger job market, it could be easier for displaced cab and delivery drivers to secure jobs with similar levels of pay.

In the world of autonomous driving, China is evidently the holy grail, offering a near limitless pool of commercial and scientific possibilities. The efficacious top-down approach of Chinese industrial planning and near-universal acceptance among the Chinese public has positioned the country as the future of autonomous driving; even Hong Kong’s government recognises the inevitability of autonomous driving and has taken initial steps to incorporate this development into its smart city plans.

Machine operatives fit oil feed pipes to engine blocks at the Ford Motor Company’s engine assembly plant in Dagenham, UK, on October 9. Ford’s CEO Jim Hackett has pledged accelerated work on green and driverless vehicles, but traditional carmakers like Ford and GM face stern competition from tech companies like Google, Apple and Baidu. Photo: Bloomberg

This contrasts starkly with the US (the birthplace of autonomous driving) where each of the states are laden with various significant regulations. Chinese firms continue to inject billions of dollars into autonomous vehicle R&D; in just the first quarter of 2017, China’s driverless vehicle industry attracted nearly US$1 billion in research funding.

However, some market participants urge investors to be more circumspect, as exit strategies via IPOs are not assured unless confirmed buyers are lined up. Further, they speak of irrational exuberance building up in the rejuvenated automotive industry, drawing hi-tech non-traditional players (for example, Apple, Baidu, Google, Intel and Nvidia) with immense financial and technological wherewithal; these interlopers are now fighting tooth and nail for market share with traditional industry incumbents like General Motors, Ford, Delphi, Continental and Bosch.

Moreover, Chinese authorities have yet to adequately address the considerable legal and insurance hurdles wrought by this disruptive technology’s emergence. But given the considerable spoils awaiting the victors, there is no doubt that the governments concerned in Beijing and Washington, along with their respective firms, will marshal resources to surmount any obstacle in this race.

Wilson Wong Kia Onn is an assistant professor in the Department of Accounting and Banking at Chu Hai College of Higher Education