OP-ED BY GUEST WRITER JOHN BARCLAY
Alphard: the brightest star in the Hydra constellation, but a blight on Hong Kong’s roads. According to new government figures, there are now an incredible 218,000 Alphards and other such 7-seaters in Hong Kong, 50 times more than the number of public minibuses… yet carrying a fraction of the 1.7 million daily minibus passengers.
The 7-seater was originally produced in 2002 for the Japanese market, not intended for export, but was spotted by Hong Kong tourists who started to import the vans for personal use.
In a city of Mercedes, Maybach and Maserati, the appeal of being seen in a Japanese minivan was not immediately obvious, but the lounge-like comfort of these overstuffed vans has quickly gained them a fanatical following. A full-page South China Morning Post ad for a Nissan HighwayStar set the tone: “Driving down the highway sipping gin”. That ad was short-lived, for obvious reasons, but the aspirations remain and seven-seaters now account for a staggering 38% of all private cars in the city.
With unsubtle names such as Executive Lounge, Royal Lounge and, in a wonderful piece of self-validation, First Class, they are often chauffeur-driven, typically carrying just one or two passengers in royal comfort. The pampered rider doesn’t even need to lift a hand to enter their private sanctuary: the sliding door opens and closes on command from the chauffeur. The cabins offer fully reclining seats, TVs, fridges and curtains for privacy.
Chauffeurs cruise around or illegally park in long lines at blackspots, with police taking little notice: the lines of idling vans around Grade A offices can easily stretch for half a mile.
In a city cramped for space, the main issue with these things is their size. A standard Alphard takes up three sq ft more than a Mercedes C-Class, and is 20 inches higher, blocking visibility from pavements and other road users. From a safety perspective, their flatter front-ends are proven to increase thoracic injuries when hitting pedestrians.
Comparing its space efficiency with a green minibus, the 6-passenger Alphard comes out very badly, just six inches narrower and 48 inches shorter than a 16-passenger green minibus. If (and it’s a big ‘if’ given average occupancy of these is usually ‘driver + one’) every seven-seater on the road were to fill all seven seats, the total fleet of 218,000 would still move fewer people in a day than Hong Kong’s 4,350 minibuses. Yet they take up almost 21 million sq ft of Hong Kong’s roads and parking spaces, valued at around HK$2 billion at today’s car park prices (HK$56,000/sq ft).
The problem has already passed a tipping point – the number of these vehicles has grown 20% since 2016 – and regulation is long overdue. The government should consider the following measures, individually or in combination:
- restrict the total number of licences for these vehicles (as is done for taxi licences), and require licences coming up for renewal to be put up for auction with a reserve price higher than the current annual licence fee;
- restrict the issue of new licences for these vehicles to (for example) registered disabled persons;
- simply increase the annual licence fee: an additional HK$5,000 per vehicle, a paltry sum for the owners of these cars, would initially yield up to a billion dollars per year; and
- restrict the usage of these vehicles to alternative days of the week, as Singapore did for cars generally.
John Barclay is an entrepreneur, and has been living in Hong Kong since 1993.