22 October 2018
Traffic jams at the Cross-Harbour Tunnel are not just limited to the morning and evening rush hours, but occur almost round the clock, seven days a week. Photo: HKEJ
Traffic jams at the Cross-Harbour Tunnel are not just limited to the morning and evening rush hours, but occur almost round the clock, seven days a week. Photo: HKEJ

Why toll hikes won’t solve traffic congestion

One of the most common occurrences in the city is the traffic congestion at the Cross-Harbour Tunnel connecting Causeway Bay on Hong Kong Island and Hung Hom in Kowloon.

The migraine-inducing traffic jam is not just limited to the morning and evening rush hours, but happens almost round the clock, seven days a week.

It’s just that motorists seem to prefer crossing the harbour via that route. Even raising the tolls is unlikely to ease the traffic in the tunnel, unless the fees are jacked up beyond affordable levels.

So the government’s proposal to increase the Cross-Harbour Tunnel fee as a way to divert vehicular traffic to other cross-harbour passages in the western and eastern parts of the island will most likely prove an exercise in futility, and will only hurt drivers and car owners, whom the plan is supposedly trying to help.

Motorists simply want to take the shortest route to cross the harbour, and are not likely to prefer a journey that is about half an hour longer to save a few dollars.

The government may need to undertake a comprehensive review of its transport policy and consider controlling the number of vehicles on the road to ease traffic congestion. It may need to share real-time data on road use and ensure that public transport services have priority in the use of roads and tunnels.

Earlier this week, the government unveiled a proposal to subsidize tolls for the privately operated Western Harbour Crossing while increasing the fees at the more popular and much cheaper Cross-Harbour Tunnel in a bid to help ease vehicular traffic.

Using the Eastern Harbour Crossing could also be made cheaper at the same time to further ease pressure on the Cross-Harbour Tunnel, where traffic will really test one’s patience, especially during peak hours. Both of these tunnels are government-operated.

The government also suggests increasing tolls for the Lion Rock Tunnel, which links Kowloon Tong and Shatin. The plan seeks to divert vehicles to Eagle’s Nest and Shatin Heights Tunnels or Tate’s Cairn Tunnel, where fees would be lowered.

However, the government, in its proposal, rejects the idea of making all six tunnels toll-free, warning that such a move could trigger widespread gridlocks.

Current cross-harbour tolls for private cars are HK$20 at the Cross-Harbour Tunnel, HK$25 at the Eastern Harbour Crossing, and HK$65 at the Western Harbour Tunnel.

The government seeks to adjust the tunnel fees for private cars, taxis and motorcycles only. There would be no increases for public transport with fixed routes.

The government’s proposal only offers a short-term solution to ease the congestion at the Cross-Harbour Tunnel, but the diversion of traffic will only add pressure to the two other cross-harbour tunnels.

In fact, the traffic congestion would extend to both the eastern and western sides of Victoria Harbour. The proposal would only worsen, rather than ease, the traffic congestion.

The truth is, the government has done little to address the core of the problem: the rising number of private cars on the road in the past decade.

The number of licenses issued to private vehicles has increased 30 percent over the past 10 years. That means an addition of 160,000 vehicles, or a total of 746,000 vehicles, using our road networks.

So if the government is really serious about easing road traffic, it should focus on limiting the number of newly registered vehicles on the road.

The government should also legalize ride-sharing services like Uber in order to encourage the use of private vehicles at full capacity, while regulating the number of private cars on the road.

According to a study by Boston Consulting Group, Hong Kong people on average are stuck in traffic for 52 minutes every day, and spend more than 30 minutes trying to look for parking spots.

If ride-sharing becomes a mainstream transport mode, the number of private vehicles on the road is expected to drop by over 40 percent.

Ride-sharing could lead to a substantial reduction in the vehicle ownership ratio and ease traffic congestion in the long run, the study says.

In Hong Kong, many commuters, and even those who own cars, use Uber because of its flexibility. The service uses big data analytics on real-time road traffic to enable them to arrive at the destination in the shortest possible time.

The government should push transport operators to share more data, while road users should be open to data sharing. This two-way sharing of information will make our public transport system smarter.

Currently, the government’s open data portal receives transport information from Hong Kong Tramways and MTR Corporation. However, bus operators such as Citybus, KMB and New World First Bus have yet to share their data with the public.

In a seminar on smart transport systems early this year, speakers urged the government to tap big data to develop a smart transport system in Hong Kong. They said the government is still using outdated tools to assess traffic flow and collecting tolls for the use of the tunnels.

It’s about time the entire city used big data analytics to make better policy decisions to optimize the use of all the tunnels.

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EJ Insight writer

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