Press: Proposal to halt tram service ignites debate

Press: Proposal to halt tram service ignites debate

SHINYA ABE, Nikkei staff writer October 20, 2015 7:00 pm JST Des Voeux Road Central, which travels through Hong Kong’s main financial district, is constantly filled with tram cars, buses and cars. HONG KONG — A proposal to end services along a tram route in Hong Kong’s Central District has stirred up a heated debate, with supporters of the idea saying it would ease traffic congestion and critics arguing it would worsen pollution and hurt tourism. In August,a former Hong Kong government town planner submitted a proposal to the Town Planning Board to end tram services along a roughly 1.5km section stretching from Jubilee Street in Central to Admiralty MTR Station along the busy Des Voeux Road Central. According to the proposal, removing the stations and tracks, which take up about a third of the road, would significantly ease traffic congestion in the area. The existing subway system would suffice as an alternative means of transportation in the area, the proposal said. However, critics immediately slammed the idea, saying it would harm the environment and tourism, and an opposition campaign was soon launched. Many opponents are worried that scrapping the service would increase automobile traffic and, therefore, air-pollution levels. One such person is Kwong Sum-yin, 35, an activist campaigning to protect the tram service on behalf of Clean Air Network, a nongovernmental organization. “Placing higher priority on cars in a world seeking more sustainability is anachronistic,” she said. Fighting back Clean Air Network and other NGOs have banded together to publish a counterproposal that calls for not only keeping the tram services, but also designating Des Voeux Road Central a no-car zone accessible only by pedestrians and tram cars. The group also launched a project to study a new design for the road in collaboration with experts from such academic institutions as the University of Hong Kong and Columbia University. Des Voeux Road Central is a major thoroughfare in the Central District — Hong Kong’s main financial district — and is constantly bustling with businesspeople and tourists. On one early September day, a group of about 10 young people unrolled some turf on the sidewalk along the busy avenue. While lounging on the grass, they read books, sang songs and by all appearances had a good time. But their portable-park session was not about having fun; it was part of a campaign to promote the use of trams and create a pedestrian-friendly area. Tram operator Hong Kong Tramways also opposes the removal plan. It says the proposal would not reduce congestion in the area because illegally parked vehicles, not slow-moving trams, are the main problem. Others in the pro-tram camp argue that the iconic 111-year-old tramway is an important tourism resource. The traditional double-decker cars are popular among visitors because of their distinctive looks and ability to offer views of the city from a high vantage point. The 13.5km tramway has been in service since 1904. Known as “ding-dings” for the sound of their bells, the city’s tram cars carry a total of about 180,000 passengers a day on average. The fare is flat and, at just 2.3 Hong Kong dollars (30 cents) for adults, inexpensive. The combination of convenience and affordability has helped the tram survive growing competition from rival transport services, including the modern MTR metro system, which serves roughly the same area. Eric Schuldenfrei, associate dean of the faculty of architecture at the University of Hong Kong, said that when the authorities discuss the proposal, they should keep in mind the possible impact on the regional economy. Official discussions on the issue are expected to start soon.