With illegal parking complaints surging at the end of 2019, police are looking at new ways to tackle the scourge of scofflaw vehicles cluttering up streets, according to the head of the police Traffic Branch, Chief Superintendent Martin Cadman, speaking in an exclusive interview with Transit Jam.
Illegal parking is the middle child of police priorities in Hong Kong. “If it’s not causing immediate danger or obstruction, it’s probably not a priority,” says Cadman.
Parking tickets for 2019 were down 30 percent on 2018, with 1.4 million tickets written across the whole city. But Cadman says the force doesn’t set targets for ticket writing, nor does it measure success that way.
“We tend to focus on outcome, not output,” he says. The prime concern of traffic police is public safety, as seen in the 2020 traffic priority bulletin, which lists 29 offences from e-mobility devices to drink driving, offences proven to kill or maim road users.
At the same time, Cadman sees parking enforcement as treating the symptom not the underlying cause. “The main cause of illegal parking is the number of cars on the road, so you have to look at how that could be addressed. And that would be really be an engineering solution to the problem,” he says.
Casualty figures suggest the police focus on more deadly offences has been effective – carnage on Hong Kong’s roads has dropped by a quarter in the last five years. Still, Hong Kong is a long way from its road safety goal of “Zero Accidents on the Road”, with around 26 people killed or seriously injured on on the road each week in 2020 so far.
And as seen in other cities, when police are too busy to take care of illegal parking enforcement, road safety suffers. In London, it was the police’s lack of action on parking that spurred new laws in the 1991 Road Traffic Act, making it mandatory for London boroughs to outsource enforcement. The private enforcers were aggressive: within a few years, London-based ticketing firms were issuing seven times as many parking tickets in London as the police did across the whole UK, including London.
In Hong Kong, where changing the payment address on a parking ticket requires the full Legislative Council process for a new law, it’s hard to imagine such a sweeping overhaul could be realised.
But Cadman says some districts are leading new ways to improve their approach and deliver more efficient enforcement within existing laws.
A good example is Sha Tin District, where police have been building bridges with the Sha Tin District Council to tackle community concerns over illegal parking and congestion.
In the past, there’s been a “scattergun” approach to illegal parking, says Cadman, which, he says, doesn’t use police resources efficiently.
“Groups of officers go on patrol together, they dig in to all sorts of cases, if a report comes in, they go and deal with that,” says Cadman. “So the amount of attention they’d give to illegal parking black spots isn’t really effective.”
But Sha Tin District has put together new dedicated traffic teams, cherry-picked from regular street patrol officers and deployed across the worst 15 black spots in the district. “If you park in one of those spots illegally, you’re going to get a ticket,” says Cadman. Ticketing works in these cases, because it’s targeted and can drive behavioural change, he says.
And analysis of complaint calls coming in showed 80% of the illegal parking complaints in Sha Tin were related to those 15 black spots – the scheme is a win-win for police resources too as regular patrol officers are no longer chasing their tails following up those illegal parking calls.
Once this trial of 15 black spots is under control, Sha Tin plans to expand the number of sites patrolled, says Cadman, taking a much more systematic approach than has been seen at a district level anywhere in the city, historically.
Sha Tin was also selected to complete a trial of controversial new machine-learning traffic cameras, which can automatically spot and record traffic offences 24-7. Cadman says a good relationship between police and local district councils will help get such pilot schemes out into the public domain and make sure privacy questions and concerns are properly addressed.
As the new district councillors and various district council Traffic and Transport (T&T) committees across Hong Kong settle into their seats, Cadman says he hopes the relationships will develop smoothly. The quarterly Traffic Accident Reduction Coordinating Committee (TARCC) meetings for each region gather the T&T chairman, regional traffic commanders and relevant government departments, and invites will be sent later this month. “We’ll talk about the different measures to address safety and congestion issues, how we propose looking at it – it’s a community consensus way of taking forward community concerns,” says Cadman.
The TARCC meetings try to focus on “engineering” and “education”, ahead of simple enforcement. “We really try to sort out the issues here,” he says.