Hong Kong’s oldest and most sustainable public transport system

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.

Session Four of the forum, “Modes: Six Wheels Good”, revealed prescient paradigms for bus transport in the city with speakers Paul Bromley, managing director of Phoenix Business Consulting, and Alok Jain, managing director of Trans-Consult.

Both speakers are heavily involved in Hong Kong’s bus transport sector: Bromley is credited with bringing the first hybrid bus to Hong Kong and helping EPD create the first subsidy scheme for electric public transport, while Jain is a former bus executive who today works with bus industry leaders in shaping the future of Hong Kong transport.

New bus paradigms

Bromley’s new approach to electric bus transport

Bromley kicked off with a picture of Hong Kong’s oldest and most sustainable public transport, the Hong Kong tram. Looking at the barriers to adoption of electric-powered public transport, Bromley sees availability of chargers, distance travelled on a charge and cost as the three biggest obstacles by far.

Cost is a fear to operators, he said – but it needn’t be. While Hong Kong franchised bus operators pay only around HK$4/litre for their diesel fuel, a bus typically travels 80,000 km a year. Thus, with a fuel efficiency of some 1.5 km / litre, annual fuel costs per bus are around HK$200,000.

For a similar-sized electric bus, the electricity cost would only be HK$130,000 – and with far lower maintenance costs, from engine systems to brake pads, which last almost twice as long on regenerative braking.

However, the capital cost may be an issue – because batteries are expensive. And with range anxiety encouraging bus operators to use more batteries, “we get into this vicious cycle of high capital costs,” he said.

“The world is moving on, technologies are readily available today and are being tried all around the world.”

Bromley discussed in-motion charging, hydrogen fuel cells or battery swaps. “In-motion charging is a trendy name for trolley buses,” he said. It’s similar to trams but better as it’s more flexible – with today’s technology you can have some battery on board so if you need to go off the catenary you can do so quickly.

“But these are more suitable for dedicated busways, which I know the Hong Kong government is not a fan of,” he said.

Hydrogen fuel cells are also improving in technology and cost. “I’ve been in the business for 30 years,” said Bromley, “and hydrogen fuel cells have always been the next big thing.” But Bromley said the technology does have promise today.

“With just a few gas tanks on the roof you can drive for a whole day – it fills up in just a few minutes, just like fossil fuels. But you need to consider where your hydrogen is produced from, because it needs to be sustainable.” Present techniques either use electricity – at lower efficiency – or release large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.

Opportunity charging keeps buses light and nimble

Battery swapping is interesting, said Bromley, because it challenges the whole ownership model of batteries and vehicles. Who owns the battery? “If I had a petrol car, I don’t own the petrol station – I buy the petrol by volume. So why don’t we do that with battery vehicles? Take the risk away from the operator, they maybe don’t own the battery they pay by how many kWh they are consuming.”

Opportunity charging is a method since chosen by the government for a trial implementation, with the recently announced prospect of several opportunity charging pantographs in Kwun Tong. But Bromley urges, “if we want a fully sustainable city we need to roll that back out further”.

Breaking the “range anxiety” paradigm with opportunity charging means using fewer batteries. “This means it’s lighter weight and gives us a bigger range. It also reduces the capital cost,” said Bromley.

More space for buses

“If you look at the cross-harbour tunnel, 80% of the people who use that tunnel use 10% of the vehicles to cross that tunnel, and those 10% are buses, double-deck buses. But is there any priority for buses on these tunnels? No!”

As a former KMB executive, Alok Jain knows the bus business inside out. He bemoaned Hong Kong’s crowded roads, filling up with private cars and slowing bus operations to a crawl.

The growth in private cars is totally unsustainable, he said. “In the last 15 years or so, the private car growth rate has gone up in a geometric progression. In the first five years, it grew 1.2%; second five years, 2.4%; and the last five years almost 5% growth. This is completely unsustainable, bringing congestion problems, parking problems and all this happened because of the unchecked growth for private cars,” he said.

“During my work with KMB, from 2012 to 2015, the traffic speeds on most of the major urban corridors reduced by around 10 to 12%. That has a huge impact on bus operations. You run exactly the same services but you require 10-12% more buses, more drivers and longer journeys.”

There is a fundamental policy failure he said, keeping buses as a lower priority. “If you look at the cross harbour tunnel, 80% of the people use 10% of the vehicles to cross that tunnel, and those 10% are buses, double-deck buses. But is there any priority for buses on these tunnels? No!” he said.

In Singapore, Jain said, any road with more than two lanes and more than 40 buses per hour is given a dedicated bus lane. “And the buses have cameras and if you block that bus lane, it’s enforceable, it’s an offence,” he said.

Meanwhile in Hong Kong, Jain said the laws are too outdated to support such initiatives.

Leadership model

Alok Jain, left, and Paul Bromley, discuss solutions

Audience member Patrick Fung, CEO of Clean Air Network, asked a question of Bromley and Jain: who should lead a revolution in public transport? Should it be a bottom-up initiative or led by government?

Bromley replied that government had a crucial role to play. “If you look at the recent super-capacitor bus trials in Sha Tin, it was the devil’s own job to get the charging in place, and that delayed the project by years, literally years. So that’s where government needs to step in. It’s not about subsidy, it’s about facilitating infrastructure,” he said.

Jain said Hong Kong does very well with “less government”, but the government now needs to provide a framework for change. “They need to create a platform for people to come in and make changes happen,” he said.

“Most of our regulations are archaic and old. We have pictures of cars on the footpath, have you tried using them for enforcement? You can’t, our ordinances don’t allow those kinds of pictures as admissible evidence in court,” he said. “In Korea, Singapore, almost all enforcement is visual-based.”

Leave a Reply