While Hong Kong boasts many key elements needed to secure its place within the top league of world cities, life is still tough for many of its citizens, given the cramped living spaces in the city.
Pointing to land constraints, government officials say it is unrealistic to expect any dramatic change in the situation, and that one should learn to take both the positive and negative aspects in stride.
While they have a valid argument, it doesn’t mean that we cannot at least do some small things to improve the daily lives of Hong Kong people and enhance the overall livability index.
Ask any long-time resident about what can be done to make our lives more comfortable, and they’ll quickly come up with a plethora of suggestions.
Here, I will highlight two of the common demands from the public that are either simple enough to be taken up immediately for implementation or have proven, workable precedents in other urban centers.
Install canopies near road junctions
Summers in Hong Kong are long and scorching.
Though air-conditioning is ubiquitous and shields people most of the time from the heat, one still has to walk across streets a few times a day, either to grab a meal or to go to the MTR station or for myriad other things.
We all know how it feels when waiting under the sun for a minute or two for the traffic light to turn green.
Many of the road junctions in Hong Kong’s urban areas have no sunshade, nor the luxury of any luxuriant greenery with broad canopy or foliage. True, some high-rises can provide shade for pedestrians, but that is hardly all day long.
Now, why can’t we follow the lead of many mainland cities and towns that have put in place large canopy umbrellas near traffic signals?
The canopies, placed near zebra crossings at traffic lights, shield pedestrians from the sun and also provide shelter from rain.
Following the same logic, eaves and other projections of buildings along a street can also stretch over above the pavement and be linked together for similar functions.
But in Hong Kong, the Building (Planning) Regulations, enacted in 1992, stipulate that no eaves, cornices, mouldings or other architectural projections should project over a street more than 500 mm.
The rationale back then was to prevent occupation of public space by private property owners.
But now, as the city grapples with rising temperatures and the “wall effect” brought about by dense high-rises, it is not time to amend the rules?
Have ‘smart’ bus stop facilities
The contrast is striking.
While Hong Kong’s franchised road transport operators maintain one of the world’s largest and most advanced bus fleets – mostly spacious double-deckers with low emission and heavy duty suspension — the majority of the bus stops in the city look almost ancient, maintaining the same appearance for decades.
Kowloon Motor Bus, New World First Bus and Citybus have all been trialing “estimated bus arrival time system” at a small scale, like a similar system in use at the bus-bus interchange on Tuen Mun Road.
These firms have also quietly launched beta real-time bus arrival updates covering a few selected routes – mainly those serving the airport — on their websites and smartphone applications.
That said, so far it appears that none of these operators is eager to expand the service or make it available at all bus stops. Hong Kong is now a laggard in the race to make bus transport smarter.
As early as since 2010, bus arrival time systems have been in extensive use in Shanghai, Ningbo and some other mainland cities where almost all bus stops and interchange hubs are equipped with LED panels displaying not only estimated bus arrival times but also real-time bus locations, speed and remaining distance to the bus stop, thanks to a satellite tracking system for fleet management.
Additional features have been added to some newly refurbished key bus stops, including large touchscreens for information about weather, maps, bus departures, service hours and fares. News and government gazettes are also disseminated through the platform facilities. Among other features, free Wi-Fi and USB charging slots are available at the newer stops.
Although there have been criticisms concerning slack maintenance or occasionally inaccurate arrival time, most passengers feel the system has made their daily commute more predictable. Previously, they often had to wait in sheer boredom without any idea about when the bus will appear.
In a May 2013 reply to a lawmaker’s query, Hong Kong’s transport secretary Anthony Cheung Bing-leung said the government “will consider whether it’s necessary to require bus companies to provide estimated bus arrival time through video announcing devices or mobile phone applications”.
In another reply six months later, the government merely said that the work would entail considerable investment and operational cost, and that bus companies have to take into account passenger needs and the system’s cost-effectiveness.
Clearly, little progress has been made in the past two years.
Our only hope now is that some senior official will take up the matter in earnest and implement recommendations that are based on successful models elsewhere.
Well pampered with luxury government limousines, the city’s senior civil servants have little awareness about the inconveniences faced by ordinary citizens.
Our transport chief Cheung had, in fact, once admitted in an interview that he has virtually never taken a bus or walked long distances on foot in the open air since he took office.
Given such a situation, don’t be in a rush to take any bets that things will improve in a hurry.
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