It’s August and I am in Hong Kong, spending my summer in this oven of a city, (supposedly) counting my blessings that we have had such a long sunny spell, as opposed the grey, rainy, squally skies the summer often brings to the South China Seas. When we first moved here, fresh off the boat from London, I was still in the public transport frame of mind a city like London will teach you. I knew all the tube lines, my favourite bus routes and only relied on taxis for work and getting home in late evenings. Hong Kong is relatively small and has a limited number of MTR stations compared to the London Underground’s 270. I had however heard that Hong Kong had the best public transportation system in the World. Jumping into taxis was something only silly expats, tourists and businessmen in suits would do. I was going to go local and only use the public transport. I thought.
As I said, it’s August, the asphalt is melting, the buildings reverberate heat from all sides and the humidity is such that with every step I take I am reminded why those who can, escape Hong Kong this time of year. Around the end of June I finally cracked and started to see the red Toyotas (HK taxis) whizzing around the city like mini air conditioned pods that I could flag down for a cheap freeze-thrill. Many in Hong Kong, especially expats, will tell you they only use taxis to get around however although they might be very cheap, they are not always the quickest way from A to B. This is often thanks to the city’s extensive one way street system which buses are sometimes exempt from – and the reason why I have not completely given up on the system.
Public transport here is in fact efficient, runs extremely frequently, is incredibly cheap and nicely air conditioned. Its biggest downfall is the information surrounding it. The MTR is exempt from this as it is is in fact well signposted and each station is similar to a small village with shops, a good customer service and transportation to and from. It also has a useful website to help you plan a route. The MTR however services a limited amount of Hong Kong and you are bound to rely on busses and minibuses to get around. The problem is which one and where is the stop? There are numerous privately owned bus companies that run the service in Hong Kong together with green and red minibuses. While the green minibuses are regulated with set lines, fees and even an internal speed limit display, the red minibuses are non regulated, can set any price and define routes as needed. Bus stops are clearly marked but the minibuses are generally hailed anywhere along the route. To get off, one just shouts out STOP to the driver and he (usually) does. This is clearly a system for those in the know.
In summary Hong Kong does indeed have one of the best public transportation systems in the world and now that the technology has caught up with its efficiency, we can all appreciate it’s virtues. Last week an iPhone application was launched by the Transport Department which allows users to plan a route based on a starting and finishing address or point of interest and the result will includesall means of transport. Oddly enough the department’s website has the same information online but the site is so clunky and poorly laid out that the only way to find the route planner is if you miraculously stumble upon the “Hong Kong e Transport” link and then accept a lengthy disclaimer.
Let’s hope the td.gov.hk website will soon follow with a much more user friendly site, designed around understanding traveller needs and consumer’s online behaviour. Until then the app is a great way to plan your journey using Hong Kong’s public transport – and it’s free!
For more information, visit the Hong Kong eTransport Website.