Tuen Mun Road congestion exposes transport planning inadequacies
This article appeared originally in the China Daily on 15 July, 2020.
Authors: Ryan Ip, Head of Land and Housing Research and Jacqueline Hui, Assistant Researcher at Our Hong Kong Foundation
How often are residents in the northwest New Territories stuck in traffic? It happens every other day. Statistics from the Transport and Housing Bureau show that on average, more than one accident happens every two days on Tuen Mun Road, and each accident leads to a traffic jam averaging 30 minutes. One of them even lasted for 4.5 hours. People in Tuen Mun are nicknamed “Tuen Mun cattle” because it is believed that they travel on the backs of buffaloes. In order to get out of Tuen Mun, one must successfully avoid the gridlock on Tuen Mun Road or a breakdown on the West Rail. It is destined to be a long and hard journey from the beginning. As a suburban highway with a large capacity and few branches, there is a reason that Tuen Mun Road is plagued with traffic congestion. The government, being the overall planner for new towns and transportation networks in Hong Kong, should therefore provide adequate infrastructure to meet development needs.
Currently, the transport links connecting the northwest New Territories with the urban areas of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon are overloaded. They are struggling to meet the travel needs of residents in the region. According to the 2016 Population By-census, there are around 1.1 million residents in Tuen Mun and Yuen Long combined. However, the northwest New Territories and the urban areas are connected only through Tuen Mun Road or Route 3, via the Tai Lam Tunnel. Although people can choose to take the West Rail instead, the trains are often full. The passenger load factor has exceeded 100 percent for the section between Kam Sheung Road Station and Tsuen Wan West Station during morning rush hours (calculated on the basis of four people per square meter).
Meanwhile, new development areas such as Hung Shui Kiu, Yuen Long South, Kam Tin South and Lok Ma Chau Loop are expected to attract more residents to the northwest New Territories. Added to that are private development projects along the West Rail Line. In 2015, the government estimated that the population of the northwest New Territories will increase to approximately 1.5 million in 2031. If transportation facilities are not upgraded accordingly, there will be a significant impact on the accessibility of the northwest New Territories to external areas.
In order to meet long-term transportation needs, the government proposed the Tuen Mun South Extension in 2014, an extension of the West Rail Line to Tuen Mun South Station. Two new stations will be built, encouraging local residents to use railways, with the aim of easing road surface congestion. The project is expected to commence in 2023 and is due to be completed in 2030. However, it is merely an extension of the existing railway and cannot relieve the pressure on the overcrowded West Rail Line. To increase service capacity, the government should prioritize the Conceptual Development and Strategic Transport Plan, which is designed to connect Tuen Mun with the Kau Yi Chau Artificial Islands and Hong Kong Island’s new cross-harbor railway as an alternative route.
As for highways, the government is currently constructing the Tuen Mun-Chek Lap Kok Link, which is scheduled to open by the end of this year. If the Tuen Mun Western Bypass under review is successfully completed, the two highways will connect the Kong Sham Western Highway, the port backup area in the northwest New Territories, Hong Kong International Airport, and the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge. They will reroute freight traffic and free up part of Tuen Mun Road for cars going in and out of the urban areas. In addition, the government plans to build Route 11 to connect North Lantau and Yuen Long and to divert traffic currently traveling through Tuen Mun Road and Route 3. The Legislative Council approved funding for its feasibility study in 2018. However, due to the enormousness and complexity of the project, the completion date is not yet confirmed.
Large-scale transport infrastructure projects usually take more than 20 years from proposal to completion. Take Route 11 as an example: The Hong Kong government proposed the construction of its predecessor, Route 10, in the 1990s. The project was scheduled for completion in 2011. The Legislative Council approved funding for the detailed design of the southern section in 1999. When the funding for the detailed design of the northern section was reviewed in 2002, many council members expressed reservations about the project’s cost-effectiveness. Plus, the utilization rate of Route 3 back then fell short of expectations, so the motion was rejected. The project was put on hold until 2017, when the government evaluated the overall traffic demands in the long run and deemed it necessary to implement the Route 11 project.
Every time the government proposes a large-scale transport infrastructure project, controversies inevitably arise. As seen in the case of Route 10, a main argument against it refers to the high costs and doubts as to the recoverability of those costs. When deciding whether to build new roads and railways, the government’s economic internal rate of return mainly takes into account the time saved by users, while other benefits such as the resulting economic development in the region, the increase in the housing supply and the anticipated land sales are not factored in the calculation. If these benefits are quantified or reflected in the rate of return, the government can better illustrate the benefits of the project, giving the public a comprehensive view of the project’s cost-effectiveness.
As evidenced by the traffic congestion on Tuen Mun Road, the northwest New Territories still lacks an adequate transportation network that connects it with the urban areas. In the past, the government applied a demand-led approach in infrastructure planning, which meant that infrastructure would be built only when new demands were identified or when existing demands were not met. Consequently, transportation development often lagged behind actual demand. In the future, with the upcoming development projects in the northwest New Territories, the government will need to implement an infrastructure-led development policy. It should generate development capacities with forward planning and take the initiative in providing transport infrastructure to meet the needs of future continuous development. If the new development areas are supported by appropriate transport links, residents moving into the region can enjoy easier access to urban areas, and the region’s potential for development can be fully exploited.