Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Hong Kong to consult on congestion pricing, rejects raising fuel tax or promoting car-pooling

Hong Kong newspaper The Standard reports that the Hong Kong Transport Secretary, Anthony Cheung Bing-leung, has announced that there is to  be public consultation on the introduction of an electronic road pricing scheme on Hong Kong Island to combat congestion.

The reason for doing so is concern that the public "does not have a clear understanding" of the "proposed scheme", despite it being clear from past studies that there could be considerable merits from introducing congestion pricing for the city.

The Transport Secretary has already stated his support for the 12 proposed measures to relieve congestion from its Report on Study of Road Traffic Congestion in Hong Kong (PDF). These measures included short to medium term steps to:

- Manage the growth of the total motorised vehicle fleet size;
- Better manage efficient use of limited road space (including planning for a pilot congestion charging scheme, and increasing fees at metered kerbside parking places)
- Introduce stringent penalties and enforcement of traffic offences.

Long term measures proposed include:

- Review parking policies around planning (which appears to mean reducing minimum parking requirements);
- Introduce technology to provide real-time information about availability of off-street car parking places;
- Encourage on-street loading/unloading at off-peak times, considering options to use road pricing to incentivise this;
- Provide more park and ride facilities at new towns and developments further out of central Hong Kong.

It is notable what was not recommended such as:

- Introducing a Singapore style vehicle quota system for vehicle ownership;
- Vehicle rationing systems such as applies in Beijing (odd number/even number permits to use roads on certain days);
- Increasing fuel tax;
- Promoting car-pooling/sharing for cross-harbour tunnels;
- Contracting enforcement of traffic offences to the private sector.

There is little explanation as to why increasing fuel tax and encouraging car-pooling were rejected, except that the former has a blunt impact that affects the whole region, and isn't particular effective at targeting congestion, and that the latter is not expected to have much impact.  However, it is considered that once concessions expire for two of the tolled cross harbour tunnels, tolling may be varied between them to help manage demand across the three tunnels (the central one is typically the most congested).

The proposed zone for introduction of a scheme is similar to one investigated in the past, and comprises the area known as Central and Wan Chai, which will be bypassed by a new highway currently under construction.

Possible Hong Kong congestion charge zone

It is not clear what a pilot would look like. I'd say that some sort of trialling of variable peak tolls on the harbour tunnels would actually be a low-risk obvious start, although it would cost money to compensate and negotiate with the concessionaires that own the Western and Eastern crossings. However, the concession on the Eastern Harbour Crossing purportedly ends in 2016 (although the Western Harbour Crossing concession continues to 2023), so there may be some scope to vary tolls to increase utilisation of the Eastern Crossing compared to the Cross Harbour Tunnel.   However, such variations are likely to have to await completion of the Central-Wan Chai Bypass which can more readily distribute traffic on the island side.

Beyond the crossings, a pilot could operate in a small sub-set of central Hong Kong at peak times only, and would be easy to trial.  

Of course, Hong Kong has a history in studying this, having launched trials with GPS technology on vehicles at the closed Kai Tak Airport site over 17 years ago.  It would be a great leap forward for Hong Kong to finally move from that to a pilot.  I can only hope that the consultation and information provided in Hong Kong to the public can be positive, and perhaps it needs to answer one of the biggest questions asked when pricing is offered to the public - what is the money going to be used for?

The answer to that question is far from clear, but perhap therein, lies the scope for more work to be done and for options to be presented to motorists.

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