TRANSIT JAM EDITORIAL
Take a good look at the 12 mayors of the C40 Global Mayors Covid-19 Recovery Task Force, who last week in A Green and Just Recovery committed to “reclaim the streets”, to rebuild their cities “in a way that improves public health, reduces inequality and addresses the climate crisis”.
One of those mayors is not like the others. Hong Kong’s representative on the Task Force is, in fact, not a mayor at all but a government minister.
Wong Kam-sing, who heads up Hong Kong’s Environment Bureau, is probably one of the more senior and environmentally experienced members of the group. He has the highest salary of any of his Task Force mayoral peers, earning 3.5 times the Mayor of Milan. He’s an architect by trade who’s had some good and productive ideas for improving our city, particularly in pushing down power plant and marine emissions.
But he’s not a mayor.
Wong has no mandate from Hong Kong, no voters electing him into office and, critically, very little power when it comes to shaping Hong Kong’s post-Covid-19 development.
When a mayor says “reclaim the streets”, things get done. When, rarely, a Hong Kong government bureau head says something so bold, other departments dive into their holes with hands clamped firmly over their ears. “Silo thinking” is one of the most common complaints levelled at this government and it prevents almost anything of consequence getting done.
If this sounds cynical, let’s look at the case studies touted by the 11 real mayors in the Task Force report: they’re visible, concrete and largely out in the streets.
- In Auckland, Mayor Phil Goff upgraded Auckland Transport’s app to show commuters how many people are on each bus, in real time. The city is also creating a dedicated congestion-free busway between major town centres.
- In Lisbon, new bus lanes will increase bus frequency and capacity. The city will build and rent 3,000 affordable housing units.
- Both Paris and Milan have presented the ‘15-minute city’ framework, with plans to guarantee essential services for all residents within walking distance. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has installed around 50 km of bike lanes and pledged to do more.
- Seattle created a new framework for ridesharing drivers and food delivery workers, to give them paid sick and safe leave during the pandemic, paving the way for more permanent protections for these city workers. Seattle also made bus rides free during the pandemic to reduce contact between drivers and passengers, and opened 2.5 million square feet of streets to residents by closing them to vehicles.
- Mayor Valérie Plante of Montreal committed to building 327 km of bike paths in response to Covid-19, under the ambitious Safe Active Paths circuit.
Seoul will create 20,000 green jobs by 2022, by capping greenhouse gas emissions on municipal buildings.
- And of course, the mayors all reference Bogotá, a leader in getting post-Covid-19 stuff done, which rolled out 80 km of cycle lanes – much of it almost overnight, which it plans to make permanent, and extended its 35-km Ciclovía network of streets closed to motor vehicles on Sundays.
Hong Kong’s actions so far, cited by Wong in the Task Force report, are depressingly mundane against this roster of actual achievements: several hundred temporary “environmental” jobs (Wong doesn’t mention that they are temporary) largely to help property developers apply for a pork-barrel car park subsidy; and HK$160 million in webcam subsidies to encourage more videoconferencing and remote work.
Rather than viewing the pandemic as an opportunity to challenge Hong Kong’s de facto “vehicles first” transport policy, the government has once again rolled out a few standalone schemes that merely require writing a cheque, without fuss or interdepartmental accord, and which have delivered, frankly, nothing for Hong Kong but free gravy for the 1,400 IT firms on the new subsidy supplier list.
What’s more, while the Task Force mayors call for “no subsidies but green subsidies”, Hong Kong has taken a different tack, supporting the motor industry, taxi trade and private bus operators, for example, while ignoring the needs of bike shops and gig economy workers.
C40 should take the opportunity to assess whether bureaucrats are really a useful addition to a Task Force committee, or if they should insist on keeping the table clear for decision makers.
Some in Hong Kong have called for the city to have a mayor, to fight for local livelihood issues and, seeing the excellent work done by mayors around the world, it’s time to revive that call.
More immediately, we need someone with power representing Hong Kong on the C40 Task Force. Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor must replace Wong as our C40 rep if Hong Kong is to realise any of the Task Force goals. If city-level mayoral work is not Lam’s cup of tea, then how about her second in command, Matthew Cheung Kin-chung? The Chief Secretary at least has the authority to knock department heads together and put bureaucrats on the same page. And who knows, with some top-down leadership, perhaps our government could finally offer a coherent vision for a new path out of this crisis-begotten opportunity.