Health and Safety

It is a basic duty of governments to maintain the health and safety of their citizens to the maximum extent possible. If they can’t do that, then they don’t deserve to call themselves the government.

There are two policy areas where our government is close to failing in its duty (some would say has failed): they are roadside air pollution and peak hour public transport. The issues are in fact connected which is interesting in itself, but the really alarming aspect of the situation is that the problems are well documented, the solutions are well known and readily available, yet the most likely outcome is that nothing will be done until it is too late. That suggests we have a fundamental problem of governance.

The subject of air pollution is very broad and multi-faceted. There is the cross-border aspect because one of the sources is industrial activity in Guangdong Province. There is a marine aspect because our busy harbour is close to the urban area. Some measures have been implemented to address both of these aspects in recent years though many would say too little too late. To be fair we should also acknowledge the greater use of cleaner fuels in power generation. Despite these modest improvements, air pollution is thought to cause five premature deaths per day in Hong Kong, and contribute to the deaths of around 20,000 Hongkongers per year.

Specifically on road side air pollution, Hong Kong has a particular problem because of the so called “canyon effect” where we have large numbers of tall buildings in close proximity. The major cause here is emissions from motor vehicles.

There has been explosive growth in the number of private cars during the last 10 years. We now have over 750,000 vehicles of all types on our roads, more than 540,000 of which (over 70 per cent) are private cars. Their direct contribution to roadside air pollution is modest – probably under five per cent. But their very presence on the road in such large numbers creates congestion. That causes the constant stopping and starting, and long periods with engines spent idling, by the larger vehicles. These vehicles would cause a lot less pollution if they were able to move more freely.

Which brings us to transport policy. The mainstay of our public transport system is the railway network. This is world class and does a great job. But as anyone who uses it during peak hours will know – and I suspect this does not include any of our ministers – the MTR is getting dangerously overcrowded at certain times of day. The extensions to existing lines and construction of new ones are all welcome but at key interchanges they will bring more passengers and hence exacerbate the existing problem. At peak hours at Admiralty, for example, the situation is already dangerous, tolerable only because of the good sense and behaviour of the vast majority of passengers. Frankly this is a disaster waiting to happen.

To reduce the overcrowding and danger, our excellent railway needs to be supplemented by a well-planned road based network of bus routes. The problem here is the traffic congestion. No matter how good the planning of the bus and minibus network, it will be to no avail if the vehicles are not moving freely. And that is the situation we have now reached. We do not need more buses on the road: we just need the ones we already have to be able to make more and faster journeys.

This is the point at which the roadside air pollution and peak hour transport overcrowding problems come together. We must as a matter of urgency halt the growth in the number of private cars on Hong Kong roads and then take bold steps to reduce the total. We cannot rely on fiscal means alone to achieve this as Hong Kong is a wealthy society and some people will always be prepared to stump up. That means we have to introduce a permit system.

There are various ways in which this might be done. Persons wishing to buy a car could be invited to bid for one of the limited number of permits to be issued each year (whether by lucky draw or highest offer is open to discussion). Existing owners of cars more than a certain age, say 10 years, would also need to secure a permit before their car would be re-licensed. Any such scheme would be wildly unpopular with both existing and aspiring owners but unless draconian steps are taken the roadside air pollution and transport safety situations will continue to deteriorate.

We cannot continue with a situation where the environment department just records how bad things are, the health department tries to treat the afflicted, while the transport department passively licences increasing numbers of private cars which add pollution and increase congestion. That is not joined-up government and it is time we had some.

Mike Rowse