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Who pays for Mainland vehicles using Hong Kong's roads?

Our government committed Hong Kong on 19 May in Shenzhen to opening its gates to the Mainland’s fleet of vehicles, reported HK Magazine this week.

We have yet to hear and see the public consulted on the cost and benefits. Increased mobility is seen as a driver for economic growth however, the cost should be made clear too.

Everyone in Hong Kong will pay with more pollution and more accidents.

Every road user in Hong Kong will pay with time lost in more congestion.

Alternatively, the community agrees on a road pricing system to influence ‘which vehicle goes where and when' by charging for the use of our roads.

We have no road space for more vehicles

Transport policies to date strongly discourage the expansion of Hong Kong’s small vehicle fleet of 54.8 private cars per 1,000 population (on par with the poorer countries in Africa).

We have to. We have 247 vehicles per kilometer of road (Hong Kong is only surpassed by Monaco). Our road network is limited and critical junctions in popular older urban areas are overloaded without reasonable improvement options available.

ERP needed before allowing more mainland vehicles

So how can we allow more Mainland vehicles without worsening grid lock on Hong Kong’s road network? The only solution is a dynamic territory-wide electronic road pricing system whereby the charges take into account vehicle origin (visitors pay more), vehicle type (purpose, emergency), vehicle size (number of axles), engine (emission and pollution), and time of day a road section is used.

HK Magazine this week: Road Wars
In the June 11 edition of HK Magazine Grace Tsoi explores the impact of more mainland vehicles on accidents, congestion and air pollution. Minor edits and subheadings have been added by Designing Hong Kong in the reprint below. Original can be found on
http://hk-magazine.com/feature/road-wars .

Road Wars

The Hong Kong government has announced a controversial plan to allow private mainland vehicles to drive on our roads, but this could prove problematic and even deadly to local Hong Kong drivers.

Paving the way for full-scale cross-border car travel

On May 19 at Shenzhen Bay, the Undersecretary for Transport and Housing, Yau Shing-mu, announced that the government is planning to unroll an ad-hoc quota trial scheme for cross-border private cars. The scheme will be implemented in two phases: first, private car drivers from Hong Kong will be able to apply for cross-border driving permits, followed by their Guangdong counterparts at an unspecified later stage. The government has yet to announce the full details of the trial scheme, but if successful, it may soon pave the way for full-scale cross-border car travel that could make use of the future Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge.

Will mainland traffic jeopardize the safety of Hong Kong’s roads?

“The scheme can satisfy wider cross-boundary transportation needs and accelerate the pace of integration between Hong Kong and mainland China,” a Transport and Housing Bureau spokesperson explained to us. Of course, further integration between Hong Kong and the mainland is always desirable, but will an influx of mainland traffic jeopardize the safety of Hong Kong’s roads?

Mainland: 27.3 percent of all accidents on roads result in fatalities. Hong Kong: 0.98 percent.

Ever tried driving on the mainland? It’s not as safe as driving in Hong Kong. In fact, it’s far deadlier. Just north across the border, collisions are rife and many drivers pay no attention to traffic laws—it is certainly very risky for pedestrians to cross the road. On the mainland, 27.3 percent of all accidents on roads result in fatalities, while in Hong Kong this figure is less than one percent (0.98 percent). Yet the Hong Kong government wants to enhance integration with the mainland by opening up our borders to private drivers from China.

We drive on the left, on the mainland everyone drives on the right

“We drive on the left side in Hong Kong but on the mainland, everyone drives on the right. This makes a huge difference to how people drive—even the manner of checking the traffic is different,” says Dr. Hung Wing-tat, Associate Professor of the Department of Civil and Structural Engineering of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. This may not be a problem on major roads, when cars can easily follow the direction of the traffic. But problems occur when cars transition onto smaller roads. With no guiding traffic, accidents can easily result.

Unprofessional drivers

Currently, most of the drivers who obtain cross-border driving licenses are professional truck and van drivers. They are very familiar with the driving system and traffic regulations in both Hong Kong and China because they have to cross the border on a regular basis. There are also around 22,000 private vehicles registered in Hong Kong that can cross the border freely into Guangdong. However, such permits are issued to very few people and they are difficult to secure. Many are government cars, or vehicles belonging to people who have invested a significant sum of money into Guangdong Province. Hung fears that the new quota system would open the floodgates to irresponsible drivers from the mainland. “Such quotas would be issued to ordinary drivers and not just professional ones. If the drivers lack sufficient experience, it will increase the number of traffic accidents in Hong Kong.”

Driving culture is different

Also, the driving cultures of Hong Kong and the mainland are very different. Anyone who has spent time on the mainland will know that crossing the road there is a matter of taking your life into your hands. Drivers in China often behave as if traffic regulations do not exist at all.

Statistics tell the story

And the statistics tell the story—according to a report by the National People’s Congress this year, although China owns only 1.9 percent of vehicles in the world, it contributed 15 percent of the total number of the traffic accidents to the world total in 2009 (and this number comes from official Central Government sources). China also has the highest fatality rate in traffic accidents in the world, an inglorious title it has held for the past few years. In 2009, China’s fatality rate in traffic accidents was a staggering 27.3 percent; in Hong Kong, this number was a mere 0.98 percent.

Congestion: Even if we limit the quotas, more Hongkongers will buy cars to commute

Besides potential traffic accidents, the cross-border quota scheme may also create extra pressure on our already-overloaded road networks. While the government may limit the number of quotas issued to mainland cars, the scheme may end up encouraging more Hongkongers to purchase private cars—especially those who often commute between Hong Kong and the mainland. “There may be lots of ways to solve some of the problems when mainland drivers come to Hong Kong, but there is no way to control the number of cars bought by Hongkongers,” says Dr. James Wang, Associate Professor from the Department of Geography of the University of Hong Kong.

More pollution

If more mainland cars are allowed on our roads, it may further intensify our air pollution problems. In Hong Kong, drivers need to follow the Euro V standards of emission levels, which is already behind the international standards. The emission standards are even lower still on the mainland, and cars there currently follow the less environmentally friendly Euro III standards. This means that mainland cars generally have much higher emission levels than local cars. “In Hong Kong, roadside pollution is already very serious. We have to reduce the number of cars on our roads and not increase it. This trial scheme totally contradicts this aim,” says Albert Lai, Chairman of the local think tank, Professional Commons.

Increased mobility is good for the economy

Despite the many potential problems, some argue that relaxing controls of cross-border private cars would be beneficial to Hong Kong’s economy. “Hong Kong now relies on the exchange of people, knowledge and information to make money. If more cars travel cross-border, it could increase the mobility of people,” argues Wang.

But do we have a good plan?

Enhancing integration with the mainland has always been the government’s aim, but it is essential for the government to keep a cool head and carefully design its policies. “There is a logic for integration policies between Hong Kong and the mainland, but there are some major failings. The government’s integration policies are strategic plans, but the government does not really calculate the social costs and efficiency when they lay out such a plan,” says Lai.

Initiate a “Park & Ride” system

The government needs to carefully work out the details of this trial scheme. Wang suggests two ways to make the scheme work better in case it goes forward. First, the government may not need to issue as many permits as Guangdong because Hong Kong is a much smaller city, and giving out too many permits could obviously paralyze the transport network. Hong Kong could also initiate a “Park & Ride” system, which has already been adopted in London and other cities. When mainland drivers cross the border, they would have to park their cars in designated spots near major transport transition points and then use public transport to travel to urban areas.

Don’t rush

“I hope the government will implement the plan gradually and not rush it,” says Chairman of the Legco transport panel Andrew Cheng.

If they must do this plan at all, then we certainly agree with Mr. Cheng. If the government rushes to integrate with poorly thought-out plans, not only would it increase our pollution and our traffic levels, but—most significantly—it could even endanger our lives.

HK Magazine, 11 June 2010, Road Wars (http://hk-magazine.com/feature/road-wars)
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