A Lesson on Social Mobility and Sustainability: Hong Kong’s leading Transport System

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Hong Kong is home to one of the densest and most heavily used road networks in the world. As of June 2020, the Highways Department reported some 787,000 licensed vehicles on nearly 2,130 km of roads across the territory – more than 370 per kilometer on average. City planners and developers have increased their efforts in recent years to reduce traffic congestion and road risks by shifting towards an increasingly data-driven, efficient, and environmentally friendly urban transport system. An overview of the status and future trajectory of smart and sustainable mobility in Hong Kong.

In Hong Kong, a city where traffic is dense and space chronically scarce, private car ownership may come with certain challenges. From higher purchasing rates for imported vehicles to insurance, to road tolls and parking fees, maintaining a private car in Hong Kong is a cost factor that relatively few are able or willing to afford. Hence, the motorization rate is low: As of 2020, the Transport Department counted just 76.7 registered private cars per 1,000 inhabitants on average. By comparison, Germany’s rate stood at 575 passenger cars per 1,000 inhabitants in 2019, according to data from the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association.

In Hong Kong, public transport accounts for around 90% of all passenger movements each day. In 2020, the average number of public transport journeys per day stood at 8.93 million, a significant drop from 12.44 million the year before due to the absence of overseas visitors amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

The most frequently used modes of public transport included railways, buses, minibusses, taxis, and ferries. The MTR Corporation was the largest public transport operator in terms of daily passengers carried, followed by Kowloon Motor Bus and the Green Minibus fleet.

Around 95% of all people in Hong Kong are using the Octopus card for seamless travel on various modes of transport. Yet, different operators not only have their own fare systems in place but also store and analyze their respective passenger travel data separately. Hence, transport experts have argued that the next generation of smart transportation will require a truly integrated cross-modal public transport services system, based on a shared data pool.

In December 2020, the Government’s Innovation and Technology Bureau released the Smart City Blueprint for Hong Kong 2.0, an update on the initial publication from 2017. The Blueprint comprises over 130 initiatives and strategies with a vision “to build a world-famed Smart Hong Kong characterized by a strong economy and high quality of living”.

Smart mobility makes up one of the six pillars of the Blueprint, with the key goal to implement an intelligent transport and traffic management system through smart data and technology. Planned initiatives include the implementation of free-flow tolling at all government-owned tunnels by 2024; pilot real-time adaptive traffic signal systems for pedestrians and vehicles; an arrival information system for green minibusses by 2022; as well as the trial and use of autonomous vehicles in various locations across the city.

Among the new additions to the revised Blueprint is a HK$1 billion Smart Traffic Fund, which was first introduced in the 2019 Policy Address and launched in the fiscal year 2020-21. The fund is managed by the Hong Kong Productivity Council and is aimed at supporting research and technology applications to improve traffic efficiency and safety in Hong Kong. To this end, Blueprint 2.0 also envisions the development of a Traffic Data Analytics System to enhance traffic management capabilities, reduce road congestion and better protect road users. However, a timeline for implementation has not yet been confirmed.

Besides leveraging data in a more efficient way, the Blueprint also lays out multiple action points to promote a more environmentally sustainable urban transport system. While improving energy efficiency in the building sector, as well as recycling and waste management strategy have long been Hong Kong’s top priorities in terms of sustainability, green mobility initiatives also play an important part in achieving the city’s ambitious carbon reduction targets over the next decade: Transportation is responsible for an estimated 20% of the SAR’s total emissions.

By 2030, Hong Kong aims to cut its carbon intensity by as much as 70% compared to the base year 2005 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Mobility-related measures directed towards this goal include making Hong Kong’s new towns more bicycle-friendly, upgrading ferry services with green technology applications, and electrifying public transport and commercial vehicles, starting with an HK$80 million pilot program for electric minibusses in 2023.

In March 2021, the Environment Bureau published the Hong Kong Roadmap on Popularisation of Electric Vehicles, setting a target to boost private e-vehicle registrations in Hong Kong while lowering the number of new registrations of internal combustion engines and hybrid vehicles to zero by 2035. Incentive measures for EVs include first registration tax concessions; a 100% profits tax reduction on EV procurement expenditures for companies; lower licensing fees; as well as free charging services in public car parks.

However, the electrification of transport in Hong Kong is not without its challenges. Limited roadside space, unique topography, and climate conditions, as well as the long daily operating hours of public transport vehicles, pose a special set of requirements with regard to EV battery capacities and the installation of comprehensive charging infrastructure in the SAR.

Hong Kong is currently pursuing a multitude of different projects and strategies to tackle the challenges of future mobility. Given the Government’s long-term political and financial commitment to a smart and sustainable transport system, specialists in e-mobility and other green technologies may be able to benefit from new business opportunities in the SAR over the coming years.

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