Even small data collection in one cul-de-sac can quickly reveal useful patterns

Talk to anyone about smart cities and “big” data will come up very soon. Fascinated with the power of massive data collection through sensors installed in streets, lampposts and buildings, we are promised huge amounts of data that can provide us with novel insights processed by software analytics and algorithms. Data can help to analyse traffic flows, patterns, heatmaps, and real-time views of what is happening in a city.

However, small data, collected by humans, can be as useful to gain insights into both street level and city-wide mobility issues. A collection of small data sets can start with hand-written notes, picture documentation, drawings, basic tables and spreadsheets.

To illustrate the usefulness of small data, a collection of plate numbers of cars parking overnight in a residential area in Sheung Wan shows that the practice of occupying public space by private vehicles is prevalent, as illegal parking is not enforced at night.

This data was collected over a year in the Tai Ping Shan area in Central Hong Kong (along Kui I Fong, Caine Lane and Po Hing Fong). The data set quickly reveals the regular space occupiers in this location. Since traffic wardens don’t work in the evening and usually don’t patrol in the early morning, there is no risk for the motorists to continue their habit.

Data collected on Po Yee Street

At the nearest paid parking facility on Hollywood Road, the monthly car park rent ranges between HK$5,680 (unreserved) to HK$6,960 (reserved). The “free” parking thus easily costs the community HK$70-90K per car per year. Thus the cars parked illegally along just the three lanes in this sample represent revenue forgone of around HK$1.5 million per year.

Taking into account all illegal parking on streets and lanes in the Tai Ping Shan area* with roughly 180-200 cars and trucks occupying the neighbourhood every night, the annual cost to the community amounts to HK$17 to 19 million. If illegal parking was enforced, every night could result in up to 64K in penalty charges in this small neighbourhood. All over Hong Kong, citizens grant private and commercial motorists public space worth millions of dollars while accepting negative impacts of air pollution noise and compromising road safety.

To put these figures into context, the annual community investment projects allocated by the Home Affairs Bureau for measures to increase liveability in districts, which includes greening, for the Central and Western district was around HK$19 million in 2019.

Donald Shoup, an expert on parking and land use, who spoke about the “High Cost of Free Parking” at the recent Transit Jam Forum, describes a similar case of urban space encroachment in the small lanes in Beijing’s Hutongs area, where car owners privatise public land for their benefit. Illegal parking became so rampant that the practice was tolerated by the authorities. The same can be said about the illegal parking in the Tai Ping Shan area and indeed, all over Hong Kong.

In Beijing, however, a pilot project to regulate parking offers a new approach to managing urban space that leads directly to better services to residents in an area by retaining locally generated parking income for local application. Shoup sees these “Parking Benefit Districts” as a model to “charge for on-street parking to manage demand and use the resulting revenue to finance local public services”. Knowing that good management of public space will result in better services and higher liveability could incentivise and motivate residents to deal with the free-riding urban space invaders.

Could such a pilot solve the public space misuse in Tai Ping Shan?

Since the area falls into the realm of the Walk Hong Kong programme, the Transport Department could use this small area to test better urban space management and collaborate with both car-dependent and car-free residents on creating a more liveable and healthier neighbourhood.  This would include convincing the owners of free-riders such as ANGEL C and others, that their convenient and “free” parking causes a lot of cost to their neighbours.

*Street and lanes include: Po Yan Street (15), Po Yee Street (18), Tai Ping Shan St (46-50), Pound Lane (11), Sai Street (15), Tung Street (14), Upper Station Street (16), Kui I Fong (9-11), Po Hing Fong 18-22), Caine Lane (2-3) Square Street 12-15) Number of “parking” spaces in brackets

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