APR 2016 EDITORIAL: Electronic Road Pricing Embarks a Journey of “Smart City” Development

Hong Kong has become a society of affluence over the decades. With rising disposable household incomes, private cars have also been a big ticket item among the people of Hong Kong – an encouraging sign of a vibrant economy. There is one problem: road traffic congestion has gotten so bad that the traveling speed of motor vehicles across Hong Kong is slowing down significantly.

On major roads of Hong Kong Island, 10 km/hour is as fast as a car can travel during peak hours. That’s a speed not much faster than the average walking speed of 5 km/hour. People not only have to put up with decreasing mobility, connectivity and livability, but are also “adversely affected” by repressed economic output and poor air quality as a result.

It is a critical issue government efforts are being spared to tackle with a recommendation of 12 short- and long-term measures by the Transport Advisory Committee. The “Electronic Road Pricing” pilot scheme in Central District – based on the “user pays” concept similar to counterparts in Singapore and London – is a welcome move to lower traffic congestion by supporting fair use of public roads.

For a solution to be effective, it needs to correspond to Hong Kong’s specific conditions – based upon “demand-side management,” ERP seems to be a good fit for better management of the use of private cars and, hence, of traffic flow. The challenges of road traffic congestion and competition of road space, after all, can be tackled through a re-balance of supply and demand for the purpose of prioritizing “Pedestrian First, Mass Transport Second, and Private Cars Last.”

To incentivize the use of green means of transport and reduce emission, certain types of cars other than emergency vehicles, namely electric vehicles, could be allowed some concession in the scheme. Of non-electric public vehicles, green minibuses and franchised buses on a fixed route are a second category of road users for which either an exemption or a reduced level of fees should be made – as not to reduce the financial attractiveness of public transport for commuters.

The ERP pilot scheme does raise some concerns over the protection of privacy, especially in terms of the use of such information by government agencies and private entities – an issue to be addressed by relevant government bodies, including the Privacy Commission, Information and Technology Bureau, Transport and Housing Bureau, and the Transport Department, with guidelines on reasonable use of information and a consistent and integrated privacy policy.

The scheme should also be evaluated vis-à-vis its effectiveness from three specific sets of indicators: overall traffic management – whether it shows measurably less congestion instead of a shift of traffic congestion from the ERP zone to areas immediately outside; private car management – whether it indicates a decline of the use of private cars; use of public transport – whether it leads an increased use of public transport in the pilot district and adjacent areas.

And, of course, the level of fees should be reviewed periodically and adjusted where necessary in order to maintain the effectiveness of ERP. More important is an extension of the Central District pilot area to cover the cross-harbor tunnels and other roads across the city. The choice and procurement of technology for the pilot area, therefore, should be taken into account.

Once the ERP pilot scheme based upon overseas experiences in Singapore, London, and Gothenburg is found to be successful, it could go a step further and provide drivers with real time and automatic data to calibrate travel on optimal routes for efficiency, convenience and safety. In the meantime, amid the implementation of ERP in Central, Hong Kong should expedite the efforts in bus route rationalization and addressing illegal parking.

As a world-class city, Hong Kong needs world-class vision for transportation, together with expert planning and execution. In the current digitally disruptive day and age, it only makes sense that wireless technology be leveraged to bring about higher productivity and efficiency. Hong Kong’s global and regional competitiveness hinges upon its “Smart City” development.

The vision goes beyond being “smart” and livable but must envisage and invest in essential hard and soft infrastructure for a sustainable model which promotes quality living. The ERP Pilot Scheme is an excellent first step towards realizing that vision utilizing analytics and data for urban planning, transport efficiency and traffic control.

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