[SCMP Column] Unsung Advantage

June 04, 2016

Let me peer back nostalgically to innocent days in 1982, living in Beijing’s Friendship Hotel in the city’s far north west, and commuting daily along the newly completed Ringroad No 3 in the China’ Daily’s only car to the Xinhua news “campus (home to the China Daily then too) in the north east of Beijing.

That lumbering 30-40 minute commute, normally at 6.30 in the morning as the sun rose, was an eerie lonely journey, road shared only with occasional ox carts, and lean-muscled night-soil vendors peddling their odd little bicycle-powered slop-filled carts out into the rural suburbs to nourish the farm fields still snuggled close to the city.

The traffic jams that engulfed me as I arrived at or left the Xinhua campus were the product of hundreds of thousands of bicyclists leaning sternly into the November chill as they passed mountains of cabbages sitting on the pavement, waiting for people to carry them home for rather drab suppers.

Today just 35 years on, ring road number 3 has been swallowed by ring roads four, five and six, and every ring is gutted with four, five and six lanes of cars. Those lean-muscled night-soil vendors are gone, or at least have been lost in the traffic fug that makes Beijing one of the world’s most pungent cities.

In 1982, a Chinese worker could not legally own a car. Such innocent and simple days. And a most tragic lost opportunity. I recall briefings back then to Mainland officials noting that as they built their new cities – from Guangzhou to Chengdu to Beijing – they did not need to rediscover the traumatic pollution-filled errors of other car-clogged cities around the world. Part of that message was that Hong Kong offered a powerful alternative urban development model: build first an excellent mass transit railway system, then build high rise housing and all social amenities above the stations. That way, they would pre-empt the inevitable graduation from bicycles to cars, and save Beijing and other cities across the country from the appalling congestion that has become the privilege of most Chinese city-dwellers today. People would never need cars, and never learn to love them.

Today, China is home to close to 200 million cars – over 5 million of them clogging the boulevards of Beijing. Only the US is home to more cars (around 260 million). Its auto industry is one of the largest in the world, making 24.5m vehicles a year (twice the total made in the US, and four times the output of German carmakers). More than 24 million vehicles were bought last year, compared with 17.5m in the US, 3.5m in Germany 2.3m in France. And that is just new vehicles. China’s car ownership is such a recent phenomenon that the second-hand car market (which accounts for two-thirds of the US car market for example) has barely begun to develop. Only in recent weeks has the Government lifted laws blocking the sale of second hand cars between provinces. China’s streets are set to become as aggressively gladiatorial as the worst in the world, with congestion matching Mexico City, Istanbul and Bangkok.

Back in those innocent 1980s I genuinely thought China might side-step the mistakes we had made elsewhere in the world. Sadly, I grossly underestimated the lobbying and job-generating power of the local and global auto manufacturers. And the deeply saddening thing is that there is now no going in back. Once people have learned to love the car, it seems impossible to reverse the love affair.
Even more important, once a city’s infrastructure and amenities – from shopping malls to cinemas, hairdressers to discos – have been built around a road system, then cars are the only means of delivering you to them. In Hong Kong, our good fortune is that as the vertical new towns were built up above the MTR stations, all amenities were concentrated there. There was never a need to own a car to go shopping, or get you to a daughter’s violin lesson, or an afternoon showing of Jungle Book.

Cities like London and Singapore have retrofitted aggressively-policed Electronic Road Pricing systems, which seem temporarily to slow the addiction to car ownership and use – but the simple fact that all amenities are distributed around the roads gives local families no choice – you still have to use the car. Cities like Beijing have restricted car access – even number registration numbers on one day, odd numbers the next, but this seems only to have persuaded middle class families to invest in a second car. The sad reality seems to be that once the mistake has been made, it cannot be undone.

Which brings us back to Hong Kong, where our MTR system still succeeds in giving us one of the lowest car ownerships anywhere in the developed world – we have around 71 cars per 1000 people, compared with 800 in the US, 600 in Japan, and 580 in Germany.
Having invested so heavily, and successfully in such a good mass transit system, the Government should clearly stick to policies that discourage car ownership as powerfully as possible. That should embrace a suite of policies – from high first registration taxes and annual licence fees, to high taxes on all forms of fuel, expensive car parking charges, high insurance premiums, and a comprehensive electronic road pricing system to encircle key urban areas. We also need keener resolve in keeping delivery vehicles off our streets during the working day, and adoption of the newer smart technologies enabling drivers to avoid congested areas and drive efficiently to car parks with empty car spaces.

Among Hong Kong’s many competitive advantages, this is one of the most “unsung”. We need to recognize it more explicitly, and have the courage to resist the road and car lobbies that seek to dismantle our defences against unnecessary ownership of cars. On this issue, I walk my talk: I have lived out in Clearwater Bay for nearly 15 years, and have never owned or needed a car. I’m a public transport user, and I’m proud of the difference it makes for Hong Kong, compared with other clogged cities around the region.
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