In the midst of the heated debate on implementation of Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) scheme in the Central Business District (CBD) of Hong Kong, many point to the success of Singapore, London and Gothenburg. But the devil’s in the details that show ERP is no cure-all in curbing traffic gridlocks.
(Content paid for and supplied by HK Roadside)
Myth 1: In other cities, ERP successfully reduced the traffic volume on tolled roads and increased traffic speed.
This is a fundamental rationale for ERP implementation to combat traffic congestion. It demands a closer examination, with examples, to truly understand the outcomes. In the official Public Engagement Documents on ERP, our government has examined the above arguments and focussed on the successful results in London congestion charging (congestion charging in London shares its basic conception with ERP). A 16% reduction, according to their document, was recorded in the traffic volume after its first year of execution.
If we look closer, the 16% reduction on the surface represented an aggregated number of traffic volume. In reality, as suggested in research conducted by The Bow Group, the main effect of a change in traffic volume only occurs after 11 a.m.; in other words, the ERP implementation cannot cope with the influx of traffic during peak hours.
In addition, the congestion charge in London, imposing charge on traffic influx during congestion hours from 7 a.m. until 6 p.m., failed to speed up the traffic flow.Neither did traffic time nor travelling speed of buses improve in congestion zones. This calls into question whether ERP in Hong Kong, even with charges targeting specific times of the day, could successfully resolve the congestion problem during peak hours, the problem that concerns most Hong Kong road users.
Myth 2: Taxed revenue from ERP could be used to subsidise the public transportation system, which in turn encourages the use of public transit
Opinions have been voiced on subsidising public transportation with the hypothetical revenue from ERP. Jakarta Governor Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama recently proposed a similar idea. By using the taxed revenue from private cars in the ERP scheme, he hoped to provide free buses to the public that could be conducive to the livelihood of Jarkarta’s citizens. It is expected to encourage the use of public transport and redistribute road users to a more environmentally-friendly and efficient type of commute.
This brilliant idea, should it be put forward in Hong Kong, could turn out to be more than just a pipe dream. With people commuting between homes in new towns and workplaces in the CBD everyday, the transportation system has already exceeded its capacity for passengers during peak hours. A free-for-all public transit in Hong Kong would put overwhelming pressure on the current saturated system. A reduction in public transportation cost, therefore, would not be effective enough to dissuade the use of private vehicles while encouraging the use of public transportation, if the current development of public transit remains stagnant.
Fact: Avoidance behavior resulting from ERP could not be prevented with bypass construction, for poor urban planning is the underlying cause of our traffic problem
In cities that implemented ERP, road users would devise detour strategies to avoid being charged in congested zones. Singapore was the first city in the world to implement ERP to reduce traffic, but Singaporeans have already developed an app to guide road users to avoid travelling via ERP charged routes. Similar avoidance behavior is expected by opponents of ERP Jakarta though which motorists would find alternative routes around the original ERP route. The traffic congestion around the roads applying ERP charges may be worsened, according to Jakarta Police chief Inspector General Tito Karnavian.
In face of the avoidance behavior and potential chaos unleashed upon the ERP implementation, our government has commenced the construction of Central-Wanchai bypass. Charging on congested roads and opening an alternative bypass could be a sound plan. Still, the underlying cause of our traffic problem in the CBD is not the growing car ownership, but mistakes in urban planning. While our government developed new towns that are far off, business ventures have always been clustered around CBD. A continuous influx of people into the CBD would only exacerbate the current congestion problem. The bypass would also soon be filled up. Therefore, we question the sustainability of developing towns in one place while creating jobs in another, and the effectiveness of the bypass in providing an alternative route for avoidance behavior.
Fact: In order for ERP to be successful, infrastructure needs to keep up with the growth of car population, while public transit provides greater net benefits to the society
One of the prerequisites of successful ERP implementation is the provision of alternative forms of commute. Governments in cities cited by ERP advocates in Hong Kong, often improved their existing public transit network as a complementary measure to deal with the surge of in demand arising from an ERP scheme. 300 buses were deployed on the streets of London; frequency and bus lanes were added and rail transit improved in the city of Gothenburg; domestic MRT railway network and Light Rail Transit were constructed and expanded between the city hubs and satellite towns in Singapore.
The emphasis on a more comprehensive public transit in relieving traffic congestion is buttressed by a recent study, which argued that traffic could be diverted along specific congested roads. It provided rebuttal against the classic theory of “fundamental law of highway congestion”. The theorist, researcher Anthony Downs, proposed that regardless of how governments expand public transits, maximum capacity on the expressways would always be reached during peak hours. Charging for the use of roads, according to the theorist, was the only way out. As proposed by the recent study, shifting the focus back to specific congested roads, however, presents us with the fact that public transit is the key.
The above study pointed out another cause to our congestion problem – the current public transit planning in Hong Kong lacks coordination. Our government displays over-reliance on the railway system in planning; the dissociation between the on-road commute (including buses and minibuses) and railway planning has resulted in a mismatch between demand and supply in some of the route services.
In the ERP proposal, our government has made promises to improve public transit infrastructure upon the ERP implementation, including opening the South Island line and Shatin to Central Link. Nevertheless, in the Public Transport Re-organization Plan to tie in the Commissioning of South Island line, part of the existing bus routes were cancelled. This shows our government has repeated the same fatal mistake by over reliance on the railway system. A more comprehensive and coordinated public transit planning is yet to be seen, casting more doubts on whether our government could, in reality, fulfill the prerequisites of a successful ERP scheme.
Each city has its own unique problems and qualities that contribute to the outcome of a policy. In Hong Kong, there is limited supply of land and almost unlimited quantity of car ownership. Prior to ERP implementation, our infrastructure needs to keep up with the car population. This includes effectual policies on public transit, parking, loading areas, roads and highways; and in a wider perspective, the urban planning issue should also be re-examined.
We hold no objection to taking references from foreign cities, but traffic policies of one city cannot be the carbon copy of another. An ineffective ERP scheme would only be perceived as a mean to increase government revenue, which our government - given the surplus of the fiscal budget - has no excuse in doing so. Since public perception is vital to the governance of local authority, ERP could be the undoing of our government that is already so poorly regarded.
Sensible Transport is a group of local transport professionals concerned with the sustainable development of urban transportation system in Hong Kong.
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