Hong Kong through the Looking Glass: A Series on Sustainable Planet, People, and Prosperity
It’s congestion and cold season in Hong Kong. Some roads are closed and others are clogged. You see more face masks and I’m 2 for 2 for a long lasting autumn cough. Both last year and this year doctors told me that cooler weather is probably the cause. I wonder if “cooler weather” is the face saving way to say “worse air pollution”. When asked about that my doctor said no, that I had a cold, but admitted that the bad air of HK’s fall and winter does make coughs worse. Still I suspect that Hong Kong’s murky air is the true underlying cough culprit. In fall the prevailing winds change from coming from the south over the ocean to coming from the north over China and you can see and smell the worsening air. It shows clearly if you graph HK’s air quality data. And last year my cough didn’t fully go away until we left Hong Kong’s dirty air and vacationed in southern Thailand’s clean air.
When I’m not feeling 100 percent, I tend to ride taxis more. A few days ago, after getting into a cab and telling the driver my address, he apparently recognized it as HKU staff housing. “You are an instructor?” “No, but my wife is a professor.” “Oh, then you are a banker?” That was a reasonable guess. My own starting assumption is that any Westerner I meet in Hong Kong who is not a tourist or teacher is working in finance or a supporting profession. After I told him that I’m a writer now and from the U.S., he asked “What do you think is democracy?” and a friendly conversation followed. With the traffic noise and my poor ear for Hong Kong English I’m not sure if he thinks that the Umbrella Movement students are exploiting (the public) or exploited (by politicians) or both, but whatever the case it’s clear that he wishes the demonstrations would stop. He says they are costing him $200 a day. That’s because he believes the demonstrations are causing worse than normal traffic congestion which means he can’t carry as many fares in a day as he normally would. I assume the dollars he is talking about are Hong Kong dollars, not U.S., since the minimum hourly wage here is only HK $30 ($3.87). I also assume that the low minimum wage may contribute to the disparity in HK incomes that Chief Executive C.Y. Leung “worries” about.
But what I don’t assume is that the Umbrella Movement is the sole reason for the severity of HK’s current traffic problems. For as long as I’ve been here traffic congestion has been a fact of life in the denser parts of Hong Kong, especially in the areas around where the Umbrella demonstrations are now located. But it seems the authorities have never done as much as they could to alleviate clogged streets. The current situation appears to be more of the same. Umbrella road blockages definitely make dealing with traffic more challenging. But the authorities don’t appear to be working to ameliorate the situation. If mitigation measures are being taken (like posting or publishing comprehensive traffic detour or bus route change information, police directing traffic, additional parking/stopping restrictions, or stricter no-parking/stopping enforcement) I haven’t seen them.
Long before the Umbrella Movement, the authorities recognized the problems of traffic congestion in the areas where the demonstrations are now occurring and the resulting increased air pollution. In fact all three of HK’s roadside air pollution monitors (at Central, Causeway Bay, and Mongkok) are located at or near Umbrella encampment locations. Their data tell an interesting story. Before the Umbrella street closures the average daily maximum air pollution registered by the three roadside monitors consistently exceeded the average of the other twelve monitors in HK’s EPD air pollution monitoring system. On September 29, the day after the Umbrella Movement began, the average of the roadside monitors fell below the average of the other monitors and stayed that way for almost three weeks until the scope of Umbrella road closures diminished.
Decreasing air pollution caused by vehicle emissions is more important to public health than most people probably realize. A recent analysis reported that in 2005, U.S. deaths calculated to be caused by traffic emissions (52,800, or 17.9 per 100,000 people) were greater than deaths from traffic accidents (43,510). The 2005 traffic emissions mortality rates per 100,000 calculated for five U.S. cities were even higher, ranging from 23.2 in Dallas to 28.5 in New York City. Since Hong Kong’s air pollution is significantly worse than New York’s, HK’s mortality rate due to air pollution is probably worse than New York’s.
Popular demonstrations to close roads are probably not a sustainable way to decrease Hong Kong’s air pollution and improve public health. However a recent proposal by the Hong Kong Institute of Planners in collaboration with HK’s environmental think tank, Civic Exchange, and others suggests removing internal combustion engine powered traffic from a 1 kilometer long stretch of road as a way to improve air quality and quality of life in one part of HK’s Central district.
Data presented in the Proposed Tram and Pedestrian Precinct in Des Voeux Road Central summary report shows that although Des Voeux Road Central has less than 10% of the traffic volume of Connaught Road Central, one block to the north, Des Voeux has worse air pollution. The report attributes this to the geometries of the roads and their surrounding buildings which result in much lower wind speeds along Des Voeux Road to disperse pollutants. Although not explicitly mentioned in the summary, but also a likely cause of the pollution level phenomenon, is greater vehicular congestion and non-synchronized traffic signals along Des Voeux which result in stop-and-go conditions while traffic flows more smoothly along Connaught road. The data also shows that along Des Voeux diesel busses outnumber both gasoline powered cars and LPG vehicles, typically taxis. (Unlike most parts of the U.S. this traffic mix does not appear to be unusual for Hong Kong. A time lapse study of my “suburban” HK neighborhood shows that frequently busses plus cabs outnumber private vehicles there.)
The report concludes that diverting coaches from Des Voeux to Connaught “will result in significant improvement of air quality in [Des Voeux], where there would be no significant impact on air quality along [Connaught]”. Supposedly that would also hold true for car and cab traffic.
Hopefully the Tram and Pedestrian Precinct will happen. But while Hong Kong considers that, other parts of the world have already implemented more comprehensive traffic mitigation and transportation improvement measures to improve air quality and urban livability. My concurrent post Population Control for Cars starts to investigate that by comparing the actions that Hong Kong and Singapore have taken to try to control their respective populations of privately owned autos.
Dante Archangeli moved to Hong Kong from Tucson, Arizona, where he focused on sustainable construction and development. He is an MIT and USC educated project manager, entrepreneur, and builder.