[SCMP Column] Cross harbor tunnel fees

October 13, 2018

Carrie Lam must take credit for beginning to tackle in her Policy Address some hitherto “untouchable” issues that have sat for decades in her predecessors’ “too difficult baskets”.

Most obvious is of course housing, but surely maternity leave, and employer offsets for MPF pension payments must count as serious efforts to break seemingly perpetual consultation cycles that have persistently kicked the can down the road on all potentially tough decisions. Who knows, she might even soon summon the courage to tackle compulsory health insurance, village housing and electronic road congestion charging.

But meanwhile, on the subject of traffic congestion, her proposals to juggle cross-harbour tunnel fees to reduce perennial snarl-ups backing from the Central Harbour Crossing in Causeway Bay back to Central must also be a landmark.

As a reasonably militant non-car owner who has for the past 25 years entrusted my commuting life to our world-beating public transport system, I confess a deep indifference to the angst and frustration of car owners who winge about the peak hour crawl to work or king’s ransom car-parking charges. I sit firmly with the 90 per cent of Hong Kong’s 16m daily commuters who care much more keenly about the speed and efficiency of our MTR, the challenge of “bus jams” into Central, and even modernisation of our trams.

But tackling the gridlock around the Central Harbour Tunnel must be in the interest of us all, and credit to Carrie Lam for at last biting the bullet. Whether the exact arithmetic of the new charges successfully realigns cross-harbour traffic flows, persuading car owners to use more often the majestically underused Western Harbour Crossing, only time will tell. But simply getting the tunnel owners to agree to adjust charges is a significant achievement. Combine it with an electronic road pricing ring around Central, and we might at last make serious progress in reducing traffic congestion.

To be fair, complain as we do about traffic congestion and soaring car ownership, Hong Kong’s traffic problems pale when compared to most of the world’s big cities. Our draconian pricing regime that has kept cars expensive, made petrol and diesel prices among the most expensive in the world, and made the cost of car parking prohibitive, has powerfully restrained the growth in car ownership.

According to World Bank numbers, only 77 people out of every 1,000 in Hong Kong have a car. Worryingly, this is 40 per cent up over the past decade, but compares well with most of the world. For example in the US, there are 910 cars for every 1,000 people, 774 in New Zealand, 591 in Japan, 469 in the UK and even 231 on the Mainland (now home to the world’s largest car population – above 300m). Even meticulously managed Singapore has a higher level of car ownership (149 per thousand).

This has only been possible because of the massive and timely investment in public transport, in particular the MTR and the very smart policy of building our new towns around MTR stations. While the MTR nowadays carries an average of 5.3m commuters every day, with buses and minibuses carrying a further 2.7m, our 560,000 cars account for about 1.2m commuters a day.

Problematic is that a significant number of these try to squeeze through the cross harbour tunnels. Note that Hong Kong has, in total, 16 road tunnels, but most of our problems focus on the three that help us get to and from Hong Kong island. According to Transport Department data, buses carry 71 per cent of the people who travel by road every day, but account for less than a quarter of the traffic, while cars carry 16 per cent of the road travellers while accounting for up to 70 per cent of the traffic volume.

I have always queried how strongly the different cross harbour tunnel charges influence which tunnel a car-owner chooses (around three quarters of all vehicles using the tunnels are private cars). After all, for most car owners, paying average annual car-operating expenses of over HK$160,000, and using a car because they prefer to, not because they need to, I have always been tempted to think they are more driven by convenience and speed than the dollar cost of a tunnel fee.

But Transport Department pilot studies going back to 1983 have consistently showed that changing the tunnel fees does indeed change behaviour, at the same time improving peak hour travel speeds through Central above the present average 20kph, and reducing air pollution.

So let’s be optimistic and hope that her new tunnel fee regime does indeed persuade more car owners to use the Western Harbour Tunnel. And let’s hope that the elimination of fees on buses will keep bus fares down, and induce at least a few of present car-owners to prefer the bus. Combine this with the completion of the underground Central by-pass, and eventual opening of the Shatin-Central MTR line, and we might for the first time in decades see congestion relief along the north of Hong Kong island.

For me, the most important need is for the government to stand firm in its determination to keep car ownership prohibitively expensive. In many countries across the world, car ownership is a need rather than a want, because of the awful inadequacy of public transport choices. Intelligent preemptive development of excellent public transport in Hong Kong has kept car ownership firmly constrained, as a status symbol and largely self-indulgent want rather than a family need.

Long may this remain true. If tinkering with cross harbour fees helps to keep our buses moving through the tunnels more speedily, and keeps street-level pollution down, so much the better. Why we need to wait until January 2020 so see the changes introduced I do not know. Surely the sooner the better.

Next, we need electronic congestion charging (the latest government consultation has estimated that 40 per cent of car trips in the morning peak may be diverted to public transport by congestion charging, with a further 10 per cent changing the time of travel), rules to stop lorries delivering stuff during peak travel hours, and perhaps some more park-and-ride hubs. But perhaps Carrie Lam can only be expected to tackle so many untouchable issues at any one time.
David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view. Opinions expressed are entirely his own.

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