MTR can’t get anything right at the moment. The high-speed rail link is behind schedule, the century-old East Rail keeps breaking down, people complain about overcrowding at all hours, and key personnel are jumping ship.
Not a few commentators have said that these problems wouldn’t arise had the government emphasised more diversity in public transport rather than shift more and more people onto the MTR. Actually, the issue is not the MTR’s share of public transport but the whole urban planning approach.
When the MTR network was initially developed, it only covered the urban core of Hong Kong. The focus was on moving people within this urban core more efficiently. East Rail, then run by the Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation, was designed to facilitate the familial visits of those with relatives living on the other side of the border and business trips for businessmen with factories in Shenzhen and beyond. It wasn’t meant to be a commuter line.
When new towns started to be developed in the 1970s, they were meant to be self-contained towns that would provide both homes and jobs for their residents. The idea was soon abandoned however, when the dearth of jobs on offer in these places forced people to commute back to the urban core to work. Instead of looking into ways to generate more employment opportunities in the new towns, the focus was switched entirely to the provision of more efficient transport links to the urban core.
Rail transport has a lot of merit compared with road transport; it doesn’t burn any petrol, is low-carbon and doesn’t cause any roadside pollution. But when the whole urban planning model is based on using the mass transit network to shift a city with a population of seven million, most of them residing in remote new towns, to a few key job centres in the urban core, the system’s going to be overwhelmed. The overcrowding is actually a sign that the model is working very well indeed.
The solution, however, is not increasing train frequency but re-examining the planning of Hong Kong – not just in terms of land use but also job creation.
Are the new towns planned with a good mix of shops, factories and offices to provide employment locally? Currently only two new towns – Tai Po and Tseung Kwan O – provide some form of employment for lower to middle-income groups at their respective industrial estates. Tung Chung residents can find jobs at the airport or the theme park, but places like Ma On Shan and Tin Shui Wai are little more than remote sleeper towns. It’s OK if one has a middle-class income that allows one to suffer the commute to the urban core to work; if not, then life can be pretty tough. There’s good reason for Tin Shui Wai to be dubbed the “city of sadness”. This is also why those who called on the government to build a new office complex not at Tamar but in Tin Shui Wai made a lot of sense. At the very least, the civil servants who don’t live in the western New Territories would be travelling in the opposite direction to everybody else heading towards Central, thus easing the overcrowding.
Trains may be a more environmentally friend way of moving about, but the truly sustainable way of living is for homes and workplaces to be within walking distance of each other.