Off-roaders: the way to go

By Chandran Nair

Click here to download the article as published in the South China Morning Post.

Road pricing is one measure being explored in a public consultation to clean the air in Hong Kong, Chandran Nair writes in the South China Morning Post in his capacity as convener of the Hong Kong Council for Sustainable Development’s Support Group on Better Air Quality.

Our love of driving cars in Hong Kong’s heavily urbanised environment is helping to heat the territory twice as fast as the rising global average. This is one conclusion in a report published this week by leading Chinese scientist Professor Peng Shaolin, who said vehicle pollution is intensifying a “heat island effect”.

The warning from Professor Peng, who heads Sun Yat-sen University's ecology institute, resonates with an ongoing exercise by the Council for Sustainable Development on air quality.One of the topics for discussion is a measure to reduce traffic in a multipronged approach to clean our air – road pricing.

A more drastic approach was tried in Beijing this week. Even though banning vehicles from the city centre was a knee-jerk reaction to pressure from the International Olympic Committee, the experiment was a timely reminder of what might be achieved by seriously considering urban transport reform.

Beijing trial captured the spirit in many major cities that recognises the need to curb excessive traffic and its pollution to make them into places where people can live as well as work.

Business and political leaders are often heard lamenting how Beijing has become a car park. Many believe things could be different had planners grasped the opportunity just a decade ago. Now they want draconian measures to fix the rot.

Other cities prefer subtle approaches, like vehicle taxing and road pricing. These mechanisms, together with other measures like plentiful public transport alternatives, abundant pedestrian areas, and cycle routes, have produced liveable environments without sacrificing convenience.

Singapore is often cited for early forays into electronic road pricing that were the forerunners to sophisticated systems now in London, Oslo and other major cities. Even brassy New York, at the heart of the US car culture, is leaning this way.

Tokyo, without resorting to economic instruments, has leveraged its excellent trains, and more community friendly urban design that allows people to use bicycles for short journeys, to deal with what could otherwise be a very chaotic city.

Is this change sustainable? Can it be replicated? Obviously, we need motorised city transport to carry goods and people around on their daily activities. But do we need private cars, which clog infrastructure designed for less traffic?

Much like telecommunications, where mobile phones do better without the heavy-duty infrastructure, gas-guzzling vehicles should be relegated from the thinking of a first-class city like Hong Kong.

The Bauhinia Foundation Research Centre’s report, “Building a Hong Kong-Shenzhen Metropolis”, suggests that the gross domestic product of such a mega-city would rank it the third highest of all cities, above London, Paris, Chicago and Los Angeles by 2020.

Should such a union could provide the platform for a sustainable development model to build up urban planning and transport systems that would be the envy of other cities. We are far from this, but there is no reason we cannot today begin our quest to become a sustainable world city by confronting old habits. We can start by challenging the conventional wisdom about how we move in large urban centres, and rely on unrestricted private-car usage.

The council’s soul-searching engagement process has put the question of whether Hong Kong is ready for road pricing into the wider public, and, if so, how this might be implemented. It accepts that there will be challenges posed by vested interests and the shackles of entrenched institutions.

Concerns about health-damaging roadside air pollution have already spurred this debate. While road pricing alone cannot persuade drivers to prefer public transport to their own cars, its judicious use will result in fewer polluting vehicles, as drivers favour hybrids and other more environmentally friendly versions. This will induce citizens to consider using the efficient public transport systems.

It will catalyse new investment in even more effective public transport, car pooling using electric cars, and a whole range of new small businesses – even battery-powered air-conditioned trishaws in flat parts of the city, and more comfortable trams.

As well as assuaging the Air Pollution Index watchers, it has the added benefit of burning less fossil fuel, which drives Hong Kong’s contribution to the worldwide climate change programme.

Who knows what would be next? Trendy bicycles for the fashion-conscious in Central and Tsim Sha Tsui? If Paris can do it, so can we, in our own inimitable manner.

Chandran Nair is founder and chief executive of the Global Institute For Tomorrow. He also convenes the Council for Sustainable Development’s Support Group on Better Air Quality.