March 20, 2023
A recent study has reported that Hong Kong has the best public transportation in the world.1 The worldwide ranking public transit sub-index based its findings on the volume of traffic, network density and infrastructure quality, while also including measures of how well cities are maintaining mass transit networks and number of commuters using them.
“It’s a popular mode of transit among commuters, despite the fact that it isn’t available 24/7, like in some cities,” the report said. It added that Hong Kong, however, has room for improvement as the report noted that it lags in terms of autonomous transit.
It was timely—and somewhat serendipitous—for us to have done an interview with Bryant Lu, Vice Chairman of Ronald Lu & Partners and a sustainability leader in the architecture and design industry, who has raised similar points when discussing the makings of a sensitive, sustainable transportation system in dense cities and the future of mobility.
CL: What is the ideal mobility model that you think will work for dense cities like Hong Kong and Singapore?
BL: Density is the key driver. Mobility then comes in to facilitate a liveable, sustainable, human-centric city planning environment. Both Singapore and Hong Kong often plan mobility into the transportation infrastructure quite early. But it shouldn’t be driven by that purely; it should be driven by the question “what is a liveable city?”
As we all know, mobility takes on many forms—not just taxis, Ubers, Grabs or private cars. Trains are essential, but they only get you to a single point. The ‘last mile’ has always been tricky for cities like Singapore and Hong Kong where the weather sometimes prohibits people from walking. Hong Kong in the summer and Singapore in general can get too hot, or maybe it’s raining. So, we need to consider from the user’s perspective—how do we connect buildings, structures and communities for them?
CL: What you’ve said is insightful. Dinda recently talked to an urban planner from Indonesia about transport too. They were talking about sustainable transport and public transportation provision, and how the two sometimes might not go hand in hand. Meaning, one could be gearing towards giving sustainable transport or mobility options, like what you’ve just said—skybridges, walkways—to encourage a lot of walking and cycling. But that doesn’t necessarily translate to providing public transportation modes like the Mass Transit Railway (MTR), or rail or high-speed rail (HSR). Would you like to elaborate a bit on that?
BL: This refers to different means of connectivity. In Hong Kong and China, we often talk about the “one-hour living radius”, which depends on the speed of mobility.
Let’s look at HSR: Hong Kong to Shenzhen (39 kilometres) takes only 15 minutes and to Guangzhou (142 kilometres) takes about an hour. To connect these two cities within one hour is quite amazing. Technically, I can take an HSR train at 11am in Hong Kong and be in Guangzhou by 12pm. I can do a 1pm lunch, have a meeting at 4pm, and be back in Hong Kong for dinner. But if you slow down your one hour using underground transportation or the MTR, then the radius of the circle becomes smaller.
I would start with lifestyles: the people living in our cities are used to proximity and convenience, and that does not contradict with sustainability. HSR and underground systems are mostly electricity-based, and you need to go back to the source of electricity and its carbon footprint.
DM: Do you think Hong Kong is already dense enough, in terms of the solutions given?
BL: I think Hong Kong and Singapore are very similar, because we’re kind of landlocked. That’s all [the land] we have; we can’t spread it out. It’s very different from Indonesia or even China, where the cities have the possibility to grow. But the flip side is, the further you go from the centre, the more transportation infrastructure and connectivity become an issue.
There’s a show on Netflix that talked about this fallacy. In the 1960s and 70s, people moved far away with new roads, new sewer systems…new everything. And they made plots of land for people to build their houses, all very nice, but 30 years later, they don’t have enough people to cover the costs of maintaining these roads and infrastructure.
Then the value of property goes down, because the infrastructure sucks, and nobody’s going to pay or invest in the area because there are not enough people. The telcos are not going to put in 5G there—it’s too expensive—they are only servicing say 1,000 people, instead of 30,000 people. So, in the long term, valuation becomes a problem. And once the real estate value starts to drop, nobody wants it and the whole neighbourhood goes down. So, it’s not sustainable, economically or environmentally. While the land is cheaper further away, the infrastructure costs to make the connection are more expensive.
I would argue that a higher density environment allows a core concentration of capital and resources. Let’s say you have an office park with beautiful public spaces and train stations and so on. But these public spaces are empty on the weekends because you don’t have residents. But if you have a mix of uses with residential nearby, then those spaces become activated at nighttime and weekends, and the sense of community is stronger. So, density has its merits because with high density, you can pay for better infrastructure.
The question is, who pays for that infrastructure? If it is a government-led initiative, which most of the time it is, then that local government has to factor in the tax revenue to cover those costs, and whether they can build enough density to make it work. You have to make it big enough, like a lot of the models in China. And not just residential—you need to have other aspects. And that’s hard. How to attract corporate companies to put headquarters there, that’s always a challenging proposition.
[This is an excerpt. Subscribe to the digital edition or hardcopy to read the complete article.]
Bryant Lu, Vice Chairman of Ronald Lu and Partners (RLP), is a sustainability leader in the architecture and design industry. Under his leadership, RLP creates human-centric designs that connect the community, while being sustainable, climate-resilient, future-ready and honour local culture and heritage. During his 20 years at RLP, the firm has received over 300 international and local design accolades, and made major contributions through such projects as the award-winning Xiqu Centre; China’s first net-zero architecture for civilian use, CIC-Zero Carbon Park; the first real transit-oriented development in mainland China, TODTOWN; Integral, a sustainable industrial garden in Guilin, and numerous others—helping to design a better life for the community and the environment.