Hong Kong must control private car growth – or lose the pollution fight

While Hong Kong’s congestion problems remain unsolved, its citizens may find it surprising that there were only three paragraphs concerning transport in the chief executive’s policy address this year, covering railway development, bus route rationalisation and barrier-free access facilities. Sadly, there were no real solutions to address the rising number of private cars on our roads.

In his speech, Leung Chun-ying put little emphasis on how the public transport system can be developed more sustainably.

Perhaps the government is already satisfied with its measures to reduce the roadside air pollution caused by traffic congestion. Yet, without curbing the rise in private car numbers, efforts to reduce pollutants may come to naught.

According to the Environmental Protection Department’s air quality data for 2014, the concentration of nitrogen dioxide decreased at all monitoring stations compared with 2013 – but still exceeded the standards set by the World Health Organisation and our own Air Quality Objectives.

The government claims there has been a continuous improvement in overall air quality over the past few years, but the data says otherwise. Levels of sulphur dioxide, an indicator of marine emissions, exceeded the WHO annual guideline at all monitoring stations except Tai Po.

Furthermore, ozone pollution in Hong Kong reached record highs in areas like Kwun Tong, Sha Tin, Tai Po and Tsuen Wan.

Without implementing a comprehensive and sustainable transport policy, we can expect air quality to deteriorate, despite the efforts to reduce roadside emissions.

Compared with public transport like buses and trams, private cars are the least efficient mode of transport. According to the recently published road congestion report by the Transport Advisory Committee, private cars account for some 70 per cent of all registered vehicles in Hong Kong, yet they carry only 11.3 per cent of the daily passenger volume on a weekday.

When we further analyse the data, we see how private cars “occupy” the roads and are the crux of the problem. From 2003-13, the number of private cars rose 40 per cent, compared with a 3.6 per cent rise in the number of buses and minibuses.

Private cars were also most responsible for the increase in distance travelled over the same period: the 25 per cent increase in annual vehicle-kilometres for private cars accounted for 65 per cent of the total growth for all vehicles.

The increasing use of private cars inevitably uses up limited road resources. According to the traffic congestion report, private cars account for 40 to 70 per cent of the total traffic on most of the main roads, but carry only 16 per cent of the total daily number of road-based travellers, or “passenger boardings”.

Minibuses and buses, by contrast, carry 71 per cent of total daily road-based passenger boardings, but account for only 5 to 25 per cent of total traffic on major roads.

Private cars comprise more than half of the total vehicles on major roads such as the Eastern Harbour Tunnel (56 per cent), Princess Margaret Road (62 per cent), Lion Rock Tunnel (57 per cent), Tate’s Cairn Tunnel (59 per cent) and Tolo Highway (58 per cent).

It’s time for the government to adopt a new paradigm of sustainable transport, with the major focus on the management of private cars to reduce their rate of growth.

The current arrangement for low-emission zones should be reviewed as it is unacceptable to have buses with emission standards lower than Euro IV benchmarks on the streets until 2026. The government should also ban other polluting vehicles from entering the zones or congested areas.

Sustainability requires more efficient and environmentally sensitive transport. This cannot be achieved by simply building more roads. It requires changes in the way we think about transport, and how we identify and evaluate solutions to problems.

In particular, priority should be given to buses and trams, which use road space more efficiently than private cars and taxis. We should also integrate walking and cycling with the current public transport system to alleviate congestion.

Loong Tsz Wai is community relations manager at Clean Air Network