Financially Sustainable Public Transit

Hong Kong is truly a multi-modal city.  People traverse the city via Mass Transit Rail (MTR), bus, taxis, cars, and of course, on foot.  Our group of 7 has found it surprisingly easy to navigate Hong Kong while running from meeting to meeting, in a city where no one knows the language or was previously familiar with the geography.  Transportation options are abundant, and the MTR system is easy to navigate, fast, and very affordable.

There is much talk about the development around the rail stations, about which I could elaborate for days . . . but, to keep it brief, it typically works like this:

  • MTR “buys” the land from the government (the government owns all of the land in HK, but “sells” it to developers via long term leases),
  • develops a rail station,
  • then builds commercial and residential towers above the station.

The profit from the tower developments atop the station podiums goes to offset the capital cost of the station development.  Therefore, the only expense left for the stations is for operations (hence the cheap fares!).  That’s right, it’s a FINANCIALLY SUSTAINABLE PUBLIC TRANSIT option, they actually exist!

The implications of this system, however, are great and there are benefits and consequences to the city, as there are with most developments and infrastructure projects.  While this transit-oriented-development makes great financial sense, the intense and sometimes impenetrable development atop a station has created some controversy among the public.

As a former graduate student from the Chinese University of Hong Kong shared with us today, “the station nodes are the new cathedrals of the city”, as they become the center around which development occurs and communities congregate.  The debate around intensive development atop rail stations then boils down to the preferred measures of success: financial success or community benefit?  . . . and does there always have to be a trade-off?

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Fun facts about cars in Hong Kong:

  • The taxes on cars make the cost of car ownership about double the actual price of the car, greatly reducing the number of privately owned cars on the road.
  • In Ching Ho estate, a public housing development of 20,658 residents, there are 257 parking stalls.  Now that’s a compelling parking ratio!
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