hong kong: quick transit reactions

Finally, I am no longer the only international transit expert who hasn't been to Hong Kong.

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Surprises:  

Everyone who talks about transit in Hong Kong seems to talk about the MTR subway system.  Yes, it's sleek, and clean, and massive in its capacity, and beautiful in many other respects.  But as someone who looks to actual network outcomes, I remain struck by its lack of self-connectedness.  The difficulty of plotting a logical path between logical pairs of stations, even some major ones, makes the MTR subway quite different from many of its world-class peers.  Look again (click pic to enlarge and sharpen)

Hk zoom in

We stayed at Causeway Bay, on the east-west Island Line at the bottom of the diagram.  What if we had wanted to get to Hung Hom, more or less directly north of there across the harbour?  This is not a minor station; it's the main access point for the light-blue line that extends out of the city, up to the Mainland Chinese border.  It appeared that the answer was the old one: "If that's where you're going, don't start from here."  In many major subway systems of the world, you just wouldn't encounter this difficulty traveling between any pair of stations, certainly not in the dense urban core.

I did enjoy the double-decker trams that ply the main east-west trunk across the Island (mostly right on top of the MTR Island Line).  They have an exclusive lane and in stopping every 500m or so they clearly complement both the faster subway and some of the buses alongside them — the latter tending to branch off in more complex paths.  The trams are certainly stately, almost surreal in their height and narrowness.  I can't speak for their efficiency, but they're not stuck in traffic.  

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They stop at platforms in the middle of the street, some rather awkward in their access.  This one is meant to be accessed only from an overhead walkway, but obviously many people jaywalk to follow the natural desire line.

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Indeed, for a city so densely pedestrianized, I noticed a number of pedestrian challenges in the infrastructure.

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Note that in discussing the trams in particular I am being careful to avoid the fallacy of technology-focused transit tourism.  While I enjoyed the trams and folks seemed to be riding them, I don't immediately tell you that these things are so cool that your city should have one.  I don't know enough about how these function in the context of the larger Hong Kong network to be able to tell you that, nor do I know enough about your city.

The real muscle of transit in Hong Kong was clearly the buses. Double-deckers, massive in both size and quantity.  These, it seems, are what really moves the city beyond the limited range of the MTR subway.

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I'm coming to view the double-decker as the logical end-state of bus development in dense urban environments.  They use curb space so much more efficiently than their alternative, the articulated bus.  The sheer volumes of people I saw being moved on these things was unimaginable on long single-deck buses.  There simply wouldn't have been room at the stops.

By the way, I noted bus lanes wherever there was a lane to spare, as in Paris and a number of other world-cities where transit is essential to urban life.

On the downside, I could have wished — as in many cities — that the buses were more organized, and that there were a map showing how at least the frequent ones fit together as a network.  Instead, I saw many signs that the buses weren't being presented as a cohesive system, but rather as a pile of overlapping products, as if from different vendors.  

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In fact, I nearly missed a desired bus because I couldn't find its sign among so many others.  

Finally, and most important, I noted a key bit of infrastructure that identifies cities that really value buses as an essential part of the mobility system.  Adequate bus facilities right where they're needed.  This one is at Wan Chai ferry terminal.  

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There's a similar one across the harbor at Tsim Sha Tsui, right where ferries converge, and towers step down to the water, and tourists gather every evening to watch the skyline sparkle.  In short, these bus terminal facilities are on unimaginably expensive real estate, but they are viewed as essential infrastructure for a network that's essential for the life of the city, just like streets themselves, so they're there.  Many American and Australasian cities don't quite have this commitment; there, many still long to treat bus facilities as things that can be shoved out of the way.

Finally, before you attack me for having missed the richness and inner logic of public transit in Hong Kong, or for having noticed only things that connect with my own preoccupations, note that I was there for 48 hours — enough time to be confronted and delighted but not enough to absorb and understand.  I look forward to the chance to return to the city for a more thorough exploration. 

34 Responses to hong kong: quick transit reactions

  1. Beta Magellan October 8, 2012 at 7:41 am #

    Although you avoided the pitfalls of tech-based transit tourism, I couldn’t help but notice that the trams, at least in the pictured photos do look like they have their own right-of-way—do you know if this is a historical artifact of some sort or a recent development? In any event, with their own ROW and stations I’d expect the trams to switch from double-deckers to articulated: since they have their own ROW the maneuverability aspect of the double-decker isn’t as important, and I’d guess articulated boarding times would be quicker.
    Although I’ve never been to Hong Kong, I stayed for a few months in Beijing and also came to love the Chinese double-decker. One of the routes I most often used was only accessible by overhead pedestrian bridge—it stopped at islands in the Third Ring Road, so following my desire line would have been suicidal. As of 2007, Beijing’s bus network was pretty well organized, too—although they still had the pile of signs, they were all part of one network and full network maps (though lacking frequency info) were available; even before I got the map I felt fairly comfortable doing bus-to-bus transfers. I only got lost once, and that was probably more a reading comprehension (my comprehensive bus map wasn’t available in English) than a network issue.

  2. Margaret October 8, 2012 at 9:43 am #

    Great blog. I wanted to say that you forgot the use of minivans which run later than the bus lines, which also help to connect different area stations together. My parents live atop Kowloon station, and they can access not only that MTR station, but Austin KCR station, all within less than one mile, the bus and minivans stop underneath the station for easy connections, and also provide a way to connect to say, the Mong Kok or Tsim Tsa Tsui stations, etc, etc. and it’s really easy. So although the MTR may show that its a little bit hard to get there, the ability to take so many transit options gives a lot of flexibility. And the bus system is great at connecting disparate parts of the system together, so we could take just one bus to get from Kowloon to Shatin and visit my grandparents.
    The other thing is that Hong Kong opens a transit line almost every few years in the last 10 years. That’s amazing.
    I live in Los Angeles now and take public transit a lot, but it really doesn’t yet compare the comprehensiveness of HK’s system.

  3. Henry October 8, 2012 at 10:05 am #

    The reason everything is so disconnected (or appears so) is because everything is, in fact, run by different operators (or was built that way.) The East Rail line (light blue) dates from the early 1900s, and the KTL, TWL, and ISL (green, red, blue) were built as one system in the 70s and 80s. The Airport, TCL, and TKL (gray, orange, and a purple line not shown on the map) were all sort of added on later on, and the WRL (purple) was only really designed to connect easily to the ERL (light blue). The map you’re linking to also seems to lack details of the passageways connecting stations – there’s one between Central and Hong Kong stations, and one between Tsim Tsa Tsui and East Tsim Tsa Tsui. Sure, transferring’s kind of a pain, but at least in Hong Kong they’re clean, weatherproofed, and climate control (which is more than I can say about New York).
    I visit Hong Kong a lot, and in my time there I have never actually seen a full map with all the routes from different operators (possibly because it would be almost illegible due to sheer numbers). If someone could link to one, that would be great.
    Buses in Hong Kong are usually feeder routes – they either feed into the MTR system, or into destinations in the core. There is a lack of “grid” routes (then again, I haven’t seen a map, and I’m not a local) but the terrain mostly prevents that anyways – Hong Kong’s geography is fairly linear, most destinations are in the core or along MTR lines, and Hong Kongers consider it too humid and polluted to actually make a 15 minute walk to a subway station if there are more convenient options.
    Also, one final note: you were actually very lucky with your tram experience. The trams aren’t that new, and when they break down, they usually cause large bunching issues with all the trams behind them.

  4. Paul G. October 8, 2012 at 10:28 am #

    Is there a problem with double-decker buses with people bunching on the lower level? Here in New York, it’s a task to get people to move towards the back of the bus. I can’t even imagine trying to get people up a flight of stairs.

  5. Wai Yip Tung October 8, 2012 at 11:55 am #

    Regarding having bus terminal facilities are on unimaginably expensive real estate. Yes that’s how it was done in the old days. The ferry piers and the bus terminal next to it form import transit hubs. The ferry pier are mostly a thing of the past. But the bus hubs continues to multiply. They are usually on the ground level on any major developments. So tallest tower like ICC and IFC have them underneath. It actaully form some interesting contrast because the real estate on top are in fact unimaginably expensive along with all the expensive shops and high income residents. But when you decent into the ground floor it is a different world of the humble buses and un-airconditioned space.
    Interesting pictures of the ridiculously narrow sidewalk. When I grew up in this environment I never saw them as problems. I just walk around them and never thought much about it 🙂 People just adapt to the problem.
    About the bus stop and huge number of lines. This is insane. You learn the route you use regular. Otherwise nobody, not even locals, can possibly know the route they have not used before. MTR is very clear in comparison. They should have hire you to fix it 🙂

  6. Wai Yip Tung October 8, 2012 at 12:00 pm #

    @Paul,
    No problem with double-decker buses. People often prefer upper level because they can have a comfortable seat and get some view. On the lower floor it is packed and you got pushed around.

  7. John W October 8, 2012 at 12:07 pm #

    @ Paul – There are also double deckers with two sets of staircases, so you have people moving from front to back on two levels. I’ve seen them in Berlin a long time ago, not sure who else uses them. There’s also the cultural thing – in the UK, you just move further back because it makes sense to.

  8. Jeff Wegerson October 8, 2012 at 12:20 pm #

    Valuable real estate and transit. The most common transit in urban cores, one that is almost always free and electrified, actually occupies the most valuable of urban real estate, the elevator. If horizontal transit were as respected as the vertical, it too would be free and graced with the locations best suited to its needs.
    Oh Well!

  9. Wai Yip Tung October 8, 2012 at 12:33 pm #

    To go to Hung Hom from Causeway Bay is actually very easy. Hung Hom is on the Kowloon side of the Cross Harbour Tunnel. So any bus that cross the tunnel will drop you there. The locals have a different mental map than the MTR’s system map.
    The ERL line was a separate system only acquired by MTR recently. Someday it will extend to the Hong Kong side and it will be the single most important extension for the MTR system.

  10. Matt October 8, 2012 at 2:47 pm #

    Hi Jarrett. Interesting comment regarding double deckers vs articulated buses. Are you, or other readers, aware of the relative dwell times at stops? I had understood that longer dwells for double deckers were the main barrier to more widespread use in high density environments with frequent stops and on-off passenger churn.

  11. ant6n October 8, 2012 at 4:36 pm #

    Articulated buses serve a different purpose than double decker buses. Double deckers are better for high capacity routes with long average trip lengths, articulated buses are better for high capacity routes with short average trip lengths.
    Not to be facetious, but be careful to avoid the technology-based transit-tourism on double deckers 😉

  12. Jarrett October 8, 2012 at 6:41 pm #

    Ant6n. I think there are other factors, notably curb space. Currently working on transit plans for a very very crowded big-city CBD where curb space is the limiting feature capping the ability to get buses through. So that can make a difference.

  13. J B October 8, 2012 at 8:03 pm #

    Another reason a lot of people like the MTR is because in the original system not only were transfers cross-platform, but there are two transfer stations between each line with cross-platform transfers in each direction. Any transfer can be done simply by walking across a platform. However, I also found that the MTR had some network issues, specifically with how the Tung Chung Line fits in with the rest of the system, though I think recent (and future) expansions would have helped resolve those. The buses really are difficult to use; even speaking Mandarin and some basic Cantonese it took me a lot of effort to figure out how to get from Olympic to Mong Kok, a distance of less than a kilometer! If you’re wondering why I didn’t walk, it’s because that would have taken me past a complicated roundabout and under an elevated roadway which I couldn’t figure out how to get past, and I couldn’t find an alternate route. For some reason many Asian cities that have the most car-hostile geography possible just can’t seem to get sidewalks right.
    As for Beijing, it’s good to hear they’re improving their bus system. When I lived there in 2004 and 2007 you had to understand Chinese to use it, and you had to know the name of the stop you were going to- not easy in a city of Beijing’s size. The buses also didn’t really form a user-friendly network, it was more of a everywhere-to-everywhere type system.

  14. Sabre23t October 8, 2012 at 9:15 pm #

    @Jeff Wegerson
    “If horizontal transit were as respected as the vertical, it too would be free and graced with the locations best suited to its needs.”
    We recently got free inner city buses, https://www.facebook.com/goklcitybus , that managed to get local taxi drivers knickers in a twist, http://thestar.com.my/news/story.asp?sec=nation&file=/2012/10/3/nation/12117853 . I hope SPAD stand their ground for the buses.
    I see Sydney and Brisbane have free CBD buses too. Is it that common?

  15. EngineerScotty October 9, 2012 at 12:32 am #

    Being a pedestrian is tricky in Hong Kong, particularly downtown–it’s like navigating a maze. Many crossings of streets require use of skybridges between buildings or dropping into a subway station and coming out the other side.
    One thing that I always find interesting is that buildings mix with travel infrastructure (roads, transit) in ways that are generally unheard of in the west. On Kowloon, you have a freeway (sort-of) that passes through an office building, literally. Many malls and other buildings are built over freeways (and HK has lots of these); compared to the functionally segregated nature of many places in the US, HK reminds me of Blade Runner.

  16. Philip October 9, 2012 at 5:44 am #

    Another problem with double-deck buses is passenger behaviour. Some UK authorities have had to close off the upper deck in late evenings due to vandalism and robbery of passengers.

  17. Henry L October 9, 2012 at 10:26 am #

    @Philip
    I haven’t heard of any vandalism issues with HK double deckers. Mind you, the buses are busy right up to midnight. Not surprising since many people don’t get off work till 8-9pm in the evening. With buses packed, there’s very little opportunity for major vandalism.
    @Matt
    My experience with dwell times on HK double deckers has not been bad. HK has had the Octopus smart card since 1997 and that has made boarding a cinch. Everyone just taps on and goes. In the past few visits to HK in the past few years, I have not seen a single soul board without one of these cards. If you boarded and paid by cash, I think the locals behind you would grumble because you are holding up the queue.
    @J B
    The quickest way from Olympic to Mong Kok is by minibus. It’s extremely hard to figure out on one’s own. And not even all the locals will know unless they take the bus regularly. My uncle who lives at Olympic takes that bus into Mong Kok all the time, so he told me about it.
    wrt Trams
    I never had to take the tram until the last time I visited HK (I stay out in the New Territories when I visit so it’s buses and ERL all the time). My first ride on the tram was a dream. I got on at a terminus and rode into Causeway Bay. I had a great upper deck seat and it was relaxing. My second experience was around dinner time. It was crowded and the upper deck seats were all taken and you’re not allowed to stand on the upper deck. I felt like a sardine on the lower deck. But for HKD$2.30, it’s the cheapest ride in the territory, but it can be slow.

  18. Nathanael October 9, 2012 at 1:27 pm #

    The pedestrian situation in Hong Kong is indeed pedestrian-hostile in many ways, as everyone else agrees.
    As others have said, the transport connectivity is better than it appears — *for locals*.
    The full network of transportation is hard to perceive because of the large number of different (and competing!) operators, and the bus system is designed to be incomprehensible to foreigners. Finding a complete map is just not possible.

  19. Ian J October 9, 2012 at 4:36 pm #

    My experience in London has been that passengers are self-sorting: those who are staying on for a longer journey go upstairs, those only taking a short hop stay on the lower deck. Similarly, people tend to come downstairs before the bus reaches the stop so they are ready to get off as soon as the door opens. Front-door only boarding has much more of an effect on dwell times than the upper deck.

  20. JJJ October 9, 2012 at 10:47 pm #

    RE: Getting people to the top of the bus
    Las vegas runs the double decker buses, and obviously a huge portion of the riders are tourists. Even packed with people who may have never ridden a bus in their life, theres no issue with the bottom being crowded and the top empty.

  21. Leo @ HK October 10, 2012 at 6:29 am #

    Hi Jarrett,
    What a great trip you have!
    For the CWB – Hung Hom connection problem, a new MTR line has been committed to connect Shatin, middle Kowloon (including Hung Hom) and north HK Island. Unfortunately, the CWB North station of that line was dropped because of cost issue. See below:
    http://www.mtr-shatincentrallink.hk/en/home/
    Even I am local here, I definitely agree with your advocacy of better mapping for the bus network, which is in fact in the bus operators’ own benefit. Young people growing up in the age of MTR have a tendency to rely on MTR more than on bus, the primary reason being the complicated bus network (and less directly, the half MTR fare discount for students!). Often, I suggest bus route to friends which is faster, but they refuse and stick to MTR instead!

  22. Alon Levy October 10, 2012 at 10:12 am #

    Do Hong Kong buses have validators at bus stops, allowing you to tap in and out off-board, or do you have to tape your Octopus on the bus?

  23. Leo@HK October 10, 2012 at 7:44 pm #

    @ Alon Levy: No, and I don’t see it’s suitable here. Boarding/ alighting time in HK , however, is a concern in my opinion. Suppose 2 second per boarding passenger, it would take 4 minutes to fully load a bus with 120 capacity. Busy on-street bus stops can get seriously clotted up by the B/A activities, and spill over to block the road.

  24. sahctu October 12, 2012 at 2:35 pm #

    The primary reason that there isn’t a dwell time issue with the double-decker coaches in Hong Kong is that operators begin driving as soon as the last rider boards the bus, instead of waiting for everyone to get seated as most systems do in the US. In Hong Kong, people know that they need to hang on, and they do. Moreover, riders prepare to deboard the bus as well, climbing down the stairs before the coach reaches their stop, and then deboarding immediately. My experience with double-decker coaches in the US is that riders (and many drivers) assume it is too dangerous to traverse the stairs while the coach is moving, which slows things down immensely.

  25. Adrian October 13, 2012 at 7:48 pm #

    @Avon Levy
    Validators are on the bus in the front only. The reason there are none at the back is that buses have a set fare, and this fare is different for every route. The amount of fare charged is based on the assumption that one gets off at the terminus. If you wanted to get off a few stops for the MTR station for instance, you won’t be boarding an express bus to a suburb because you would be charged more than a local bus. The only exception to this are some selected bus routes in the outer neighborhoods where you will be charged the maximum fare and be reimbursed depending on what zone you disembark at. This works in Hong Kong because of he frequency of buses for every single route.

  26. Andrew October 13, 2012 at 8:15 pm #

    It is easy to figure out the Hong Kong bus system, if you use the Google Maps trip planner tool. In many, many cases, there are bus routes that are quicker for certain trips than taking the MTR. For example, there are several bus routes that cross the Cross Harbour Tunnel between Causeway Bay and Hung Hom.

  27. Nathanael October 15, 2012 at 8:59 pm #

    “It is easy to figure out the Hong Kong bus system, if you use the Google Maps trip planner tool. ”
    Good point — I last visited Hong Kong before Google Maps.

  28. Pete Brown October 17, 2012 at 2:24 pm #

    Given that the Hong Kong buses follow UK operating practise, will you be venturing to these shores next Jarrett? London would be the obvious place to view a massive double decker bus system, plus it is a regulated network that you are familiar with. If staying for a few days there are three provincial towns/cities a short distance from London where you would see quality urban double decker bus operation in the deregulated environment. These being Oxford, Reading, and Brighton & Hove.
    Regarding bus stop dwell times, London with almost universal use of Oyster Cards, cashless boarding in Zone 1, and dual-door buses dwell times are short. Oxford, Reading, and Brighton all favour single door buses, the provincial standard layout. Reading and Brighton have a simple flat fare system, Reading Buses do not give change. All offer smart cards so boarding times are minimised. Oxford and Brighton are part of the Go-Ahead Group. Reading is a municipal.
    Also in UK urban areas buses do not wait for passengers to be seated before pulling away from stops. As in Hong Kong you learn to hang on, especially on the stairs. Alighting passengers press the stop button and then make their way down stairs (or at least as far as the top of the stairs) ready for a swift exit when the bus stops.
    Typical London Double Decker:
    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/ed/East-London-Transit-Demonstration-Bus1.jpg
    Typical Oxford Bus Company double decker – An Alexander Dennis Enviro 400:
    http://www.showbus.com/p2012/Oxford%20Scania%20Enviro400%20220.JPG
    A Reading Buses Enviro 400 Hybrid:
    http://www.buszone.co.uk/220%5E050911.jpg
    A Brighton & Hove Volvo B5LH Hybrid:
    http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-TBasv3nu-Xg/UHr73VNoZ0I/AAAAAAAAIhI/_0lshMZjt7k/s1600/brighton_1.jpg

  29. Pete Brown October 17, 2012 at 2:33 pm #

    Typical London bus lower deck layout. The stairs are at the front right behind the padded wheelchair backrest. Note the destination display on the bulkhead. This is part of the ‘iBus’ system fitted across the fleet and will alternate between the route number with ultimate destination and the next stop name. An audio announcement will also give this information. Wheelchair users board at the centre door which otherwise is for exit only.
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/23875695@N06/4373943304/lightbox/

  30. Pete Brown October 17, 2012 at 2:49 pm #

    Video of trip on East London Transit route EL1 showing boarding passengers using oyster cards, iBus audio announcements clearly audible but not intrusively so, ‘bus stopping’ sign illuminated when stop button pressed and exit via centre doors.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WT3bCZfjQYA

  31. Fisings.wordpress.com October 26, 2012 at 4:30 am #

    The bus networks are confusing mainly because there are three providers (First Bus, KWB and Citybus) with different routes. The upside is the vast array of choice, meaning if you miss a bus you never have to wait long for another one (same route or different) that gets you ‘near’ your destination.

  32. rebelmouse.com July 2, 2013 at 4:30 am #

    Excellent read, I just passed this onto a colleague who was doing a little research with this topic. And he actually bought me lunch because I ran across it for him. I really should thanks for the free lunch I obtained. rebelmouse.com

  33. Bob Patrick August 15, 2013 at 8:26 pm #

    Hong Kong is superior to Toronto. Toronto, not enough rapid transit, transit expansion is used for political gains, and everyone almost needs a car. You don’t need to own a car in HK!!

  34. Kyle Leung October 12, 2015 at 9:55 pm #

    Hi Jarret, thoroughly enjoy your blog.
    I’m a HK-born Singapore resident who has lived in Hong Kong in the past (and still visits once in a while).
    Your point about bus terminus locations in HK is interesting, but it misses the point that they exist because of the relative cheapness of travelling by ferry across the harbour in some cases favours ferry-to-bus transfers rather than a straight route by bus.
    Also, the division of the urban core (in other words, a commercial sprawl) in Hong Kong by the Victoria Harbour, and the traditional geographic separation by the water body (HK-ers speak about living on Kowloon and HK Island very differently), also effectively makes the public transportation vaguely resemble that of two separate cities in two different countries of close proximity (perhaps like Dover and Calais)? Bus routes are purposefully segregated to serve their respective territories so as not to overly congest the limited capacity of the tunnels linking the two places.
    When the above conditions do not apply, as in Singapore’s case, most bus terminals can be located outside the city in suburban centres, and simply run through the urban core and be just as effective, if not more (fewer transits, for one).
    The bus terminus at the ferry terminals in HK sits on prime real estate, but Victoria Harbour is being constantly subject to land reclaimation works so this matter becomes less important. When it becomes important, the possible outcome is to develop a mixed-use complex with the terminus at it’s base.

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