Standing on the platform of Hong Kong’s Tsim Sha Tsui station at 11:30 on a Tuesday night, watching crowd after crowd filter into already busy subway trains, you come to understand the importance of the MTR to the city pretty quick. On top of being one of the world’s most densely populated cities, Hong Kong’s geography (a crowded island separated by a busy harbour from a mountainous territory) poses unique problems to transportation planners. Mix this with a political climate that some claim to be amongst the most neoliberal in the world (the Hong Kong government moved heavily in the 90’s to divest itself of public utilities), and you have a very unique and fascinating transit system that is a hot bed for innovation.
The backbone of the system is clearly the MTR subway and rail system. The first line of which opened in 1979 and has since expanded to cover over 211km with 150 stations; although some of this expansion was accomplished through a takeover of the existing Kowloon Canton Railway (KCRC).
The subway is marked by several features, most notably its utilitarian design. Similar to Toronto, many stations are colour coded for easy recognition. Public art is not particularly common and food and drink is banned from the fare paid area. Glass barriers separate the platform from the track at all stations, and give the platform itself a much more comfortable and enclosed feel. The most noticeable characteristic of the system however is the ever-present crowds. This hits home the fourth and fifth time you hear the trilingual announcement reminding people to stand clear of the doors.
Crowd control is built into the system’s design and impressive infrastructure works to reduce bottlenecks. At some prominent transfer point between lines tracks are interchanged over two stations so that passengers can disembark and simply cross the platform to the other line, depending on which direction they want to go.
Diagram showing a two station interchange on the MTR, busy transfer points were anticipated in the design and are often at level
The MTR is a full of interesting details. Displays in many stations narrate the history of the area while guard rails around escalator entrances ensures orderly crowds when leaving stations. An admirable system of exit signage in mezzanines matches above ground destinations to exit letters and sub numbers. Each exit/entrance at a station is numbered with signs throughout the station directing you to your specific exit. This makes meeting people at a station much easier and reduces confusion once back above ground. Crowd control is also sometimes manifested in lines and arrows on stairways separating people walking in different directions.
Well marked exit signs
Free internet stations throughout the system
Hong Kong’s subway system has made a clear focus to integrate itself into people’s daily lives. There is WIFI throughout the system and free internet terminals. Advertisements also showed how the system cross-promotes itself with culture, focusing interest on transit by bundling fare cards with toys and event tickets. The best feature of integrating the transit system however is clearly the infamous Octopus smart card, first introduced in 1997. A testament to what PRESTO could do for the GTA, the Octopus card is ubiquitous in Hong Kong and you can use it to pay for a surprising array of situations. Many stores and food outlets, accept the card as a means of payment, I even used it to pay for the mounted binoculars at Victoria Peak. The Octopus card is now operated within its own company and continues to expand its uses in the city. The Octopus card allows for distance based fares and seamless integration with Hong Kong’s ferry’s, busses and trams.
The Octopus card started on transit and is now used throughout the city
Hong Kong’s ferry and tram systems are impressive in their own ways as well. The heritage double-decker trams (referred to as the ‘ding ding’ by locals) are surprisingly rickety and do an incredible job of being both symbolic and highly functional. If your lucky enough to find one with some room to board, passengers enter through a turnstile at the back and pay when leaving. The historic Star Ferry accomplishes its dual roles as working transit system as well as a tourist attraction quite well. Seat backs on the ferry can be swung either way so that you can always face forwards.
Inside one of the historic trams
What is most impressive about transit in Hong Kong however is how affordable the system is. Whatever you think about privatizing transit, in Hong Kong it has produced a system that is clean, efficient and affordable. Perhaps due to the competition with other transit operators, or ownership of adjacent profitable commercial properties, transit in Hong Kong will cost you surprisingly little. The tramway for instance, running through the heart of crowded Hong Kong island costs a flat rate of two Hong Kong dollars. At the current exchange rate that’s 27 cents Canadian. It’s no secret that this is a transit system to drool over.
Proof of the unbelievably low flat fare on the Hong Kong Tram (two Hong Kong Dollars = 27 cents Canadian)
Top photo by Heather Champ, all other photos by Marcus Bowman