Oren Tatcher’s MTR isochrones re-examine the way we plan around public transport

Transit Jam’s inaugural online forum Rethinking “Vehicles First” drew 45 participants from Hong Kong and overseas for a lively two-hour programme of ideas, vision and debate on tackling the city’s major urban transport challenges.

The online event pared the topics down to the essentials, focusing on urban space as a fresh lens to view the growth of cars in our city.

Space, and the use of public space, is often neglected in transport discussions. Transport is approached from a technical or engineering focus, or lately, through the lens of climate change – ie, from an environmental perspective, and then from a scientific or engineering viewpoint. Urban planning is relatively new to the discussion, but brings people – people walking, on bicycles, on public transport, in cars and ferries – front and centre into the picture.

Note: this article covers the first three sessions of the forum, focusing on public space, data and placemaking. The sessions on buses, electric bus paradigms and cycling and space will be published later.

Session 1: public space

Wan Chai Connect is a practical way to reclaim public space

Peter Dampier, Marketing and Relationships Director, Asia Pacific at Buro Happold, introduced Wan Chai Connect, a visionary project for solving the problems of space and connectivity in Wan Chai and addressing the “scar which cuts the throat of old and new Wan Chai,” as Dampier puts it.

The solution, he said, is an elevated approach that deals with the pedestrian problems in the district. “Let’s face it they’re not going to take the barriers down, you’re not going to have pedestrianisation, they’ve been trying on Des Voeux Road for 17 years, so the only way to do it with this is to take it at face value and create something unique that floats above and provides that connectivity, linking the MTR stations, the new MTR stations and the desire lines to the harbour.”

Oren Tatcher, Principal of OTC Planning and Design, introduced a project to improve MTR isochrones – the contours representing a set walking time to and from station entrances.

The circular isochrones look different when adjusting for realities on the street

As Tatcher said, walking only takes a small proportion of the average Hong Kong commute – looking at “walk, wait, transit, walk” durations, Hong Kongers on average walk for 21% of their commuting time, compared to 35% in New York. But, says Tatcher, much of the street walking time is replaced by minibuses: if looking only at MTR journeys, the walk-wait-ride-walk picture looks quite different. “There will be a long walk and much of it won’t be very pleasant,” he said.

Tatcher’s approach creates a circular isochrone representing a theoretical six-minute walk from the station and then applies real-life hurdles such as hills or pavement obstacles, to assess truly how far one can walk in six minutes along a particular route.

Session 2: parking

Donald Shoup, Distinguished Research Professor of Urban Planning at UCLA and world-renowned “parking guru” gave the forum a pre-recorded interview discussing Hong Kong’s parking problems. He suggested three policies for the city: set market prices for on-street parking; use parking revenues in that district for projects such as neighbourhood improvements, free wi-fi or free transit passes for residents; and remove off-street parking minimums for off-street parking. When discussing the problems of enforcement in Hong Kong, Shoup pointed to London’s problems in the last century, solved by use of the “Denver Boot”, a wheel clamp that not only imposes a fine on the illegal parker, but makes it very clear to all drivers around: “this is not OK”.

Session 3: data and space

Marina Huynh, Director, Infrastructure Advisory at EY, introduced the session – Huynh’s experience is in supporting government in developing and implementing key strategies around public infrastructure and services, and she led a lively forum on data, resilience and placemaking.

Andrew Pickford, Associate Partner, Transaction Advisory Services, introduced the TRP Inter-modal Transport Data Sharing Programme, a new look at harnessing big data from transport operators to better define inter-modal links in the city. “Our focus is prioritising more about data than space but there an inextricably link between them certainly when it comes to providing mobility in what we all observe to be a three-dimensional city, not a two-dimensional city, we have grade separation, we have multiple modes, we have 90% public transport market share, for all intents and purposes it looks pretty good. It’s only when you get down into the details of the operations and start to consult with the enormous transport ecosystem in Hong Kong that you realise, things could be improved,” he said.

“There’s a data ownership imbalance in Hong Kong,” says Pickford, “and a lack of alignment on sharing and no common view on the value of data – in many cases the commercial value. There’s also no common approach to technology adoption. The government has committed to invest in green minibuses to bring them up to speed to connect better with users – but we also believe the technical capacity varies widely between operators and there’s no understanding of how costs and benefits could be allocated.”

Hong Kong’s MTR through a resilience lens: a resilient MTR is crucial for keeping people on public transport and away from private cars

From City University of Hong Kong, Shauhrat Chopra, Assistant Professor at the School of Energy & Environment, and PhD candidate Zizhen Xu shared work on resilience of multi-modal public transportation. “Cities are faced with all kinds of disruptive events,” said Chopra. “These tend to have a significant impact on the public transport system. So it is imperative to design and operate public transport that is safe to fail and can bounce back.”

“A poor resilience of the public transport system would force residents to use private cars during disruptive events,” he said. Meanwhile more resilient public transport can contribute to more long-term sustainability.

While Hong Kong has a high level of public transport ridership, this concentration also makes the system more vulnerable to disruption, said Chopra. “So we produce data drive resilience analytics in the context of Hong Kong.”

Xu introduced the multi-modal resilience model, where transfer between nodes is made by walking a reasonable distance. A layer model identifies serious vulnerabilities in the network: for example, in Hong Kong, four stations are the most vulnerable: Kowloon Tong, Tai Wai, Tsim Sha Tsui and Admiralty. The system then assesses the “relocation” effect – the redundancy accessibility of passengers, or, simply, are there other ways they can travel if these nodes fail? From a planning perspective, it’s important to look at these additional modes and connections when planning extensions to the network, said Xu.

Sun Yi’s findings dispel the traditional view that greening and environment can make places desirable.

Sun Yi, Assistant Professor, Department of Building & Real Estate, Hong Kong Polytechnic University, presented his work on walkability, with interesting findings that the elderly, in particular, might not value those things traditional city planners deploy. He finds that buildings, community facilities and social environments are better predictors of place attachment than the provision of green and quiet space.

“This is very interesting,” he said, “because in general people think if we provide a sufficient amount of greening, or we make the place quiet enough for people to stay and enjoy themselves, this is important. However, this kind of place characteristics do not have powerful effects to improve place attachment. Older people in Hong Kong seem to more appreciate the utilisation of the place – the usefulness of the place in supporting their daily life rather than the place identity,” he said.

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