Saturday, September 10, 2011

Public Transportation

Several people have asked us if we miss our cars, but honestly – the answer for me is no. The big reason I’m able to say this is because the public transportation system in Hong Kong is so efficient. It’s better than any other system I’ve seen – even those in Europe. Now of course, this is partly possible because Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated places on Earth. But, at the same time, the government here promulgates policies that serve to discourage mass car ownership. Car purchases are taxed at approximately 100% of the purchase prices, and gas costs over $8 a gallon. In addition, the costs of garaging cars are apparently astronomical, given the high costs of real estate here.

As a result, most of the masses (including us) rely on public transportation to get around, which is a pretty easy thing to do given how extensive the system is. The easiest part of the system to understand and use is the MTR, which is the public rail system here.

The MTR is designed to get you all over Hong Kong. The closest MTR station for us (Sui Hong) is a quick 10 minute walk from our apartment; from there, we can get to Kowloon in about 30 minutes, to Hong Kong Island in about 45 or to other parts of the New Territories in an hour. The different lines of the MTR cross at regular intervals, such that you can use it easily to get just about anywhere for less than $4.

There is also a light rail system here in the western part of the New Territories, which is only served by one MTR line. So the light rail serves to transport people around the Western N.T. It appears that many in the area rely on the light rail system to get them to the MTR stations to commute to work, but it can also be used to see many out of the way places and areas (Doug actually spotted his bike store on a light rail trip and used it to go back and purchase his bike) or to otherwise go about your daily life. As example, we can use the light rail system (we have several stops nearby) to get to the boys’ school quickly or to head down to the Gold Coast, where there are excellent public beaches (which we did today).

If neither the MTR nor the light rail get you where you need to go, there is also an extensive bus system. This system is both public and private in that the MTR owns and operates some lines, but other lines are operated by private companies (under contract to the MTR). As a result, there are numerous different kinds of buses here, including some that are large and cushy:

As well as others that are not so large and cushy (these buses are our favorite and in fact, Doug has a whole post brewing about bus 46):

Despite the fact that these lines are operated by different companies, you can use an Octopus card to pay for a ride on ANY of these forms of public transportation. And generally speaking, these rides are cheap, cheap, cheap. A ride on the bus into town (Tuen Mun) costs .50c (US) as does the ride to the boys’ school – for us. For the kids, it’s even cheaper. I think the most expensive ride on the MTR is about $4. Even better than the low cost, though, is the high frequency at which all of these forms of transportation operate. I can remember waiting 20-30 minutes for an el train in Chicago at non-peak times, but I don’t think we’ve waited more than 10 minutes for ANY form of transportation here in Hong Kong. A more typical wait is under 5 minutes. As a result, public transportation is highly utilized here; we rarely see an empty bus or train – in fact, never might be a better word than rarely – even at off peak times. Due to this, Berkley has become a shark in locating seats on the trains (see below for the shark in action - he secured not only a seat for himself but for his father as well - just before the new riders came on and packed the car to the gills); I’ve seen him out gun a few natives in securing a seat for himself.

The other clincher about public transport here – it’s clean and safe. I’ve seen kids not much older than the boys riding the MTR or a bus alone. In fact, when school lets out, the MTR and light rail is filled with children in public school uniforms (which are quite ugly BTW – another blog post topic). Life here in Hong Kong is really centered around public transportation use too. You can get pretty much anything you need at an MTR station; there are clothing stores, snack shops (7-11s are ubiquitous- there are two in our little MTR station alone), pharmacies, etc. I even bought our toaster at our MTR stop. And the larger grocery stores around here deliver for a minimum expenditure – usually around $50-60 (again – a story that merits its own post!), so you don't even need a car to grocery shop (the reason I always wanted a car when I lived in Chicago).

Now, of course, using all of this public transportation is facilitated by one last form of transportation:

There’s a lot of walking to be done in using public transport – to the station, between lines, to where you’re going. But to me, this is a benefit, not a draw back. We’ve been eating up a storm here in Hong Kong, but with all the walking we’ve been doing, it hasn’t had an effect on our waistlines. So, that’s my long answer to a simple question: do we miss our cars? No. I may feel differently after a full year here, but right now, given the costs and hassles of car ownership, I am happily car free.


  1. Have to say I am impressed with the transportation - like you in Chicago, I wanted my car b/c there never seemed to be an el or bus when you needed it! Glad to hear you are having a great time and why does it not surprise me that Berk can find a seat!

    aunt cheryl

  2. That was a very illuminating post! I think it should be republished in the NYT and our members of congress forced to read it... We could solve our jobs crisis/global warming crisis/energy crisis by reinventing American mass transit!

  3. I have your sandals in gold! And the girls have them in pink and white :)