After 4 days of traveling on the Hong Kong transit system I can honestly say that the experience has been amazing. First off, it’s often a daunting task just to figure out how to use the subway system in foreign country, but it has been surprisingly easy and straightforward here in Hong Kong (although I must admit that I simply followed Marc Weigum through the stations for the first two days!). The stations are well signed and make it easy to find the most appropriate exit to get you to your ultimate destination. Paying fares is a snap with the octopus card. While the card doesn’t really resemble an octopus, it does allow the rider to traverse Hong Kong’s far reaching transit tentacles in a seamless and efficient manner by simply scanning the card upon ingress and egress. In addition to the ease of use, we have all been amazed by how cheap it is to use the system. I initially loaded my card with $150 Hong Kong Dollars ($12 US) and have yet to refuel the card despite the fact I have been riding on a regular basis. The actual travel experience too has exceeded my expectations. We have yet to wait for more than two minutes to catch a car, travel times between stations are quick, and once on the trains there have been no delays at a station or unscheduled stops in between. The ride experience, too, is highly acceptable. While many trains are crowded, riders are generally polite well groomed – I have yet to be shoved in the back by someone trying to force their way on to a packed train or subjected to a ride with a smelly armpit in my face. The train cars themselves are relatively new and clean. Overall, I would give my Hong Kong transit experience an A+.
Transportation is the lifeblood of a city. It establishes to a large extent what is possible in terms of design and density. In Hong Kong transit and real estate development have a symbiotic relationship, which is made possible by government land ownership. Capital generated through government land transfers (long-term lease structure with substantial upfront payment) to developers around future sites are used to fund the initial capital costs of the line. This also allows the government to shape the development that will occur near transit sites in order to insure ample ridership. Although Hong Kong’s application of TOD has been criticized on many other grounds, it has been successful in providing an abundant pool of riders near each station. High ridership levels make transit provision more cost effective (despite their cheapness fares fully cover operating costs) and efficient as it allows more trains to operate which reduces wait times. In fact, it appears that the subway system has a significant time advantage over other forms of transport throughout much of the city and I believe that around 80% of all trips in Hong Kong are made by public transit.
Efficient mass Transit is the foundation that makes sustainable urban development possible. In my mind this is the most vexing constraint to compact development in the U.S.. We can’t support higher density without mass transit and we can’t support mass transit without higher density. While urban policy makers are increasingly advocating for more public transit, we don’t have the benefit of government land ownership to help finance capital costs, and our existing densities are far too low to even come close to generating the ridership required to cover operating costs. This aspect of the sustainability puzzle has no clear cut answers – and is begging for an innovative solution.