The success of Hong Kong Transit as "the exception" that proves the rule
There is a spirited discussion on my neighborhood listserv about streetcars because of the recent spate of planning meetings concerning the "North-South" corridor and bringing streetcars to the corridor. Most of the residents writing on the listserv seem to be against it, which isn't a surprise but is short-sighted, because Ward 4 is dominated by motor vehicle users.
One person brought up Hong Kong Transit as a counter-example--why is it that that system is so successful and by comparison WMATA is not?
Ironically, I have been intending to write an entry about the Mass Transit Railway system there in response to a recent article in the Evening Standard, "HK2: why Transport for London is looking to the Hong Kong Metro for inspiration." From the article:
... a funding mechanism that leaves the Hong Kong system needing no operational subsidy (in fact, MTR generates a surplus of HK$5.1 billion a year for the Hong Kong government). This is despite low fares: most central journeys cost only around HK$10 — about 80p.
The key is MTR’s Rail + Property scheme. This exploits the fact that the freehold to much land in Hong Kong is government-owned: MTR has to buy leaseholds at market rates but is then gifted development rights. It thereby effectively captures the increase in the land’s value resulting from a new metro station via the deals it extracts from developers of new housing, offices and malls over and around the line.
These deals give MTR a share of profits, assets in kind, or a combination. They are immensely complicated engineering and commercial operations that bring together the planning of multi-level stations and lines — sometimes on land reclaimed from the sea — together with the construction of malls and skyscrapers overhead. ... Such deals have also left MTR owning 13 shopping malls.
Almost half the company’s revenue now comes from property rental and development.
Hong Kong's Mass Transit Railway as a real estate developer and transit system manager. Most of the writing in the transit world about MTR focuses on its use of real estate development as a revenue source ("The Unique Genius of Hong Kong's Public Transportation System") and its management of other transit systems as another revenue source ("Hong Kong's Subway System Wants to Run the World," Wall Street Journal; "In socialist Stockholm, an outsourced transit service," Toronto Star).
The mistake that most people are making when they look at Hong Kong's transit success is that they are focusing on the "transit oriented development" element, which granted is somewhat unique, although railways in Japan do the same thing ("Rail integrated communities in Tokyo," Journal of Transport and Land Use) without acknowledging that TOD success is not an independent variable but a dependent variable resulting from foundational characteristics that make transit successful in Hong Kong, which in turn makes transit oriented development successful.
If real estate isn't the reason, why is transit in Hong Kong so successful? The most important point is to figure out why transit is successful in Hong Kong and conversely why it isn't successful in other places.
Transit's success in Hong Kong is the result of having (1) a densely populated place; (2) constrained by geography, making automobility and sprawl difficult; (3) "mixed land uses" rather than separation; (4) tight links between transportation planning and land use planning; and (5) a commitment to building and extending a multi-modal transit system to simplify mobility.
It's not practical for people to use motor vehicles to get around in Hong Kong, given the density and geographical constraints.
Land use in Hong Kong a perfect example of monocentricity, as opposed to the polycentric or "sprawling" nature of land use in the Washington region. Rather than concentrate land use, the Washington transit system is designed to support sprawl, by making it easier for suburban residents to get to their federal agency jobs in Washington DC and close-in suburban locations.
The physics of people movement. Hong Kong is like like Manhattan in that it isn't possible in terms of physics--the amount of road and parking space required--to move that many people in and out of the city's various districts day-in and day-out by car. High-capacity high-speed transit is the only way to do it.
So it isn't that we aren't capable of developing this way in the US, it's that instead of investing in the conditions that support transit, we invest in spatial and other conditions that support automobility, deconcentration, and sprawl.
Transit failure isn't hard to figure out. Deconcentration of land use, population, and employment centers with a focus on separating uses are all of the conditions that militate against successful transit. That's why Hong Kong is a good example for us.
Of course, New York City is an exception to the post-WWII general trend of US transit failure, which proves the rule about concentration, mixed use, and transit.
WRT NYC, the book Green Metropolis provides a good overview of the environmental advantages that are derived from these characteristics. New York City is the "greenest" city in the US in terms of lowest per capita energy use, lowest car ownership, lowest use of gasoline, lowest GHG per capita, lowest waste production per capita, etc.
DC's transit success is based on job concentration at the core. That transit does reasonably well in DC in a land use paradigm that still preferences automobility comes down to three things (1) concentration of jobs at the core, required by law (federal agencies); (2) the federal transit benefit which pays for a goodly portion of getting to work for many people; and (3) the proximity of DC residential districts comprised of attractive historic building stock to the employment centers in the core, which has allowed much of DC to revitalize despite sprawl.
As federal agencies sprawl out from the core, the transit system's efficiency declines. Note that even if DC doesn't always benefit financially from federal agencies located here (something I've probably argued too much, such as in "More on Barry Farm (vs. Poplar Point) as a new location for the FBI") the reality is that having the agencies here concentrates transit service in Washington, DC and that is a benefit for residents disproportionately compared to residents in other jurisdictions in the region.
And as federal agencies move out of the city and/or move to locations that are served by fewer transit lines, it makes the subway system less efficient.
Because of the high ridership, streetcars in Hong Kong are double deckers.
Missing the point about streetcars: streetcars aren't a substitute for high speed transit, they are a complement. In any case, the transit system in Hong Kong is an example for Greater Washington and other cities on many different dimensions.
William Lind of the American Conservative Magazine Center for Public Transportation makes the point very succinctly, in "A Tale of Two Contemporary Cities: Hong Kong, China and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania" that:
Like streetcars elsewhere, Hong Kong’s trams complement the subway system, serving the important collection and distribution functions. More important for the city as a whole, they act as pedestrian facilitators, encouraging people to provide the urban life-giving critical mass of customers on sidewalks. If your feet get tired or bags get heavy, you can just jump on a tram.Streetcars or buses, the debate continues. With regard to streetcars and buses and the "conversation" in DC, the major argument seems to be that instead of streetcars, more money should be invested in the bus system. But in mixed income areas, where people of greater economic means have a greater array of choices, they don't ride buses.
I am not familiar with any research that demonstrates convincing evidence otherwise.
Sure, with special upgraded services such as bus rapid transit or express commuter buses, more people of higher income will ride bus-based transit, but mostly these routes are exceptions to the general principle.
We don't see a massive shift of higher income people in favor of buses and away from fixed rail-based transit.
This data is from 2005. Washington Post graphic. Were this data to include railroad commuting, it would show even higher income ridershp for that mode.