Over the years, the government has been blaming motorists for the ever-worsening problem of traffic congestion in our city. It says the number of registered private vehicles in Hong Kong have already exceeded 600,000 – way beyond the capacity of our existing road system.
But is the continued rise in the number of vehicles on our roads solely to blame for the traffic jams on our streets?
I think the administration is not telling us the whole truth. There is another root cause of the city’s deteriorating traffic conditions, and that is the built-in flaws in the planning of new towns in the New Territories.
In order to cope with the city’s mounting population, the government started building “satellite towns” in the New Territories in the 1950s.
Back in those days when the manufacturing sector still accounted for a significant portion of the city’s economic output, the first generation of satellite towns such as Tsuen Wan, Kwun Tong, Yuen Long, Shatin, Tai Po, Fanling and Sheung Shui all had their own industrial zones, which provided hundreds of thousands of jobs for the local population.
However, from the 1980s onwards, when local manufacturers started moving their production lines to the mainland for cheaper labor, the government did not proactively introduce other job opportunities for these satellite towns.
As a result, residents who have moved into these newly built suburban towns still have to spend hours commuting between their homes and their workplaces in traditional business districts in Kowloon and Hong Kong Island on a daily basis.
In other words, the development of new towns and the shifting of population to the New Territories have not alleviated the pressure on the road systems in urban areas, particularly during the morning and evening peak hours, since those who have already moved to the north still have to come to work downtown.
The fact that thousands of working people are commuting from their homes in the New Territories to either Kowloon or Hong Kong for work on a daily basis explains why our inter-district traffic congestion problem has continued to worsen over the years.
Worse still, despite the fact that the New Territories is now home to 60 percent of our city’s population, the region is only connected to urban areas by a few major highways and tunnels. As a result, traffic along these main routes is almost routinely at a standstill during morning and evening peak hours every day.
Take Sai Kung and Tseung Kwan O in the New Territories East as examples. The two districts are home to over 400,000 people, but they can only rely on two main routes, i.e., the Tseung Kwan O tunnel and the Po Lam North Road, for access to Kowloon and the rest of the city.
The situation in the northwestern New Territories is even worse, with nearly a million people having to rely on just Route 3, which charges a heavy toll, and Tuen Mun Road, for access to the outside world.
Traffic jams in Ting Kau, Tsuen Wan and Tsing Yi during rush hour are equally bad even though Route 3 has already diverted some of the traffic.
And it has proven to be of little help if residents in the New Territories heed government calls for them to take the train instead of the bus, as our existing railway system has already been overwhelmed by thousands of daily commuters.
Just take a look at the staggering crowd during peak hours at the MTR stations of Admiralty, Kwun Tong and Kowloon Tong, and you can tell how dangerously overloaded our city’s rail lines have already become.
To ease the traffic congestion caused by inter-district commuters, I believe the government should create new job opportunities in areas such as Tsuen Wan and Kwai Tsing by tapping into the vast pool of vacant industrial buildings there and redeveloping them into office buildings. That way, our new towns would not only provide accommodation but also jobs for the local population.
In the meantime, the government should take the lead by moving the headquarters of some government departments to the New Territories so as to encourage the private business sector to follow suit.
On the other hand, in order to ease traffic jams in some seriously congested roads such as Argyle Street in Mong Kok, the Transport Department should designate parts of these roads as bus-only lanes during specific hours of the day.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb 28
Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting
[Chinese version 中文版]
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