26 October 2016
The tram has a long history of serving the transport needs of the people of Hong Kong Island. Photo:
The tram has a long history of serving the transport needs of the people of Hong Kong Island. Photo:

Some technocrats are losing touch with reality

Sit Kwok-keung recently tabled his submission to the Town Planning Board seeking to remove the tram line between Admiralty and Central to increase the road space by 30 per cent, so as to ease traffic congestion.

The retired government town planner and founder of the consultancy firm Intellects Consultancy Ltd. said on a radio show it is probably faster for him to walk from Central to Admiralty than to take the tram.

His remarks immediately sparked an uproar among the public.

The saga is a classic example of how some longtime civil servants with a rigid and outdated mindset have been getting increasingly out of touch with mainstream public sentiment.

Sit argued that the tram is not only slow and inefficient but has completed its historical mission, so it’s time to get rid of it.

He said people favor keeping the tram not because they need it but rather out of nostalgia.

Those who are opposed to Sit’s views argued that the tram is a century-old icon of Hong Kong Island and therefore should be preserved.

There are many major cities around the world that rely on trams to provide an affordable, sustainable and environment-friendly mode of public transport.

Sit’s critics believe that it is the ever-increasing number of vehicles on the road, as well as illegal parking of luxury cars and trucks during rush hour, rather than the tram, that are causing traffic congestion.

When Hong Kong’s economy began to take off in the 1960s and ’70s, boosting economic activity in the city became the main concern of government planning.

Since then, the kind of mindset adopted by Sit, which sees efficiency and cost effectiveness as a top priority, has been typical among mid-level and high-level technocrats in the government.

This kind of mindset dictated how community facilities were planned and new towns were built.

Simply put, everything basically was designed to cater for the needs of economic development.

For example, when planning a new town, what comes to the mind of government officials first is often the design of the road network and then the layout of commercial and residential areas.

Other public amenities that don’t serve much economic purpose but are required under the Hong Kong planning standards and guidelines — such as recreational facilities, parks, public open space and green-belt areas — are usually given the lowest priority.

In other words, when it comes to town planning, the first and foremost task is to make sure the overall productivity of society is increased, while the creation of a comfortable living environment for the people often takes a backseat.

Once we understand the kind of long-held logic of old-school technocrats, perhaps it is not that difficult to figure out why Sit would propose something that goes completely against the opinion of the general public.

This article first appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug 24.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Columnist of Hong Kong Economic Journal

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