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Hong Kong needs its own special projects

Hong Kong does not need any more grandiose infrastructure projects like the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge. What it needs is to invest in cheap, local, and cost-effective micro- transport, such as pedestrian bridges and escalators, writes investment manager Richard Harris.

13 DECEMBER, 2018

My professor removed the pipe from his mouth, and pointed it at a reservoir dam, which had a road running along the top. The smooth lines of the structure were enhanced by the road dipping gently over the dam wall. It was a testament to the skill of its Victorian engineers. “What do you notice about it?” he said.

“Engineers build things straight,” the professor said. “When it was built, the road was level.” It now dished elegantly towards the middle of the dam wall as it had gracefully settled over the previous 120 years.

I was reminded that engineers build in straight lines by the South China Morning Post reporting earlier this year of the dramatic collapse of the protection in front of the sea wall on an island linking the 55km Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau “Bridge to Nowhere” The damage is obvious as the normally beautifully arranged concrete protective dolos units, which interlock like a net to prevent marine erosion around the bridge structure, now lie in a spreading debris field under the sea. Look out for it just under the right wing of every aircraft on the short final descent to Hong Kong airport.

It is more cosmetic than unsafe, but such has been the embarrassment that no repair works have been made. The deputy director of the HZM Bridge Authority was quoted in the paper as saying that the concrete blocks were meant to be placed in a “random” manner. This of course is the exact opposite of how to use interlinking dolosse. He continued to dig himself in, “We have our ways to do it, and you [Hong Kong] may have your ways to do it”. Okaay …

While the building of the magnificent Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge was marred by such self-inflicted problems, it is truly an engineering marvel of which Hong Kong should be proud. The BBC has quoted its cost at US$20 million, which is probably a fraction of the true costs involved, and we simply do not know what those are because the Chinese government has not released the numbers. The Copenhagen/Malmo Oresund Bridge is one-sixth the size and cost US$2.6billion – in the early nineties.

An example of a really productive link is the Shenzhen-Zhongshan Bridge, which is due to open in 2024. It is at the Lowest Crossing Point of the Pearl River in a much more cost-effective location, connecting two large areas of development at probably a quarter of the cost. It will eat the lunch of the HZM Bridge, making it redundant. As a provincial project, its development was held up until the HZM Bridge was underway.

Recent protests about the bridge being used almost solely by weekend day trippers from southern Guangdong and early reports from travellers that the journey from Central on Hong Kong Island to Macau by bus takes three-and-a-half hours, as opposed to the ferry, which takes 55 minutes, reinforces the point that that good infrastructure does not have to be big or expensive.

In short, Hong Kong does not need any more grandiose chest-beating infrastructure projects. What it needs is to invest in cheap, local, and highly cost-effective micro-transport.

The next step should be to build local cost-effective projects for the many, not monuments to the egos of the few.”
Part of this article appeared in the SCMP as “Why Hong Kong needs fewer bridges to nowhere and more escalators, lifts and footbridges”.

We need more footbridges, walkways, escalators, lifts, ramps, travelators, flyovers over blackspots, slip roads and tunnels for cars and people. Hong Kong’s pedestrian bridges are a winner; a global envy that allow pedestrians unimpeded, all-weather, air-conditioned access – and an extra chance to shop in top-grade retail space. The other winner is the escalators – uphill to Soho and Mid-Levels and to Sai Ying Pun. But we need more of them – and this time without steps that still act as a barrier to many.

Broken pavements, crooked curbs, street barriers and steps all make Hong Kong something of an obstacle course for those who are less than able-bodied. At present, the median Hong Kong man is between 55 and 59 years old; the median woman 50-54. In 10 years, many will be pensioners. How many more hip, back, knee and ankle problems will be diagnosed? How many will have to negotiate a long and painful walk, an overly steep row of steps, or six lanes of fast moving traffic?

Even now there are almost no escalators from the MTR to street level (unlike Beijing and Singapore). It takes a 200 metre walk to get outside many of the new stations on the Island Line. Lifts are inaccessible if you are on the wrong side of the street.

Hong Kong needs more big projects as much as it needs a hole in the head. Making Hong Kong micro-transport friendly for city living would cost a fraction of the “Bridge to Nowhere” and improve the passage of people around town. It makes real economic sense to build more escalators, bridges with lifts and escalators, and travelator-lined tunnels. The next step should be to build local cost-effective projects for the many, not monuments to the egos of the few.

Richard Harris, chief executive of Port Shelter Investment, is an investment manager, writer, broadcaster and financial expert witness. He has 40 years of experience in a full range of investment and capital markets activities. He has a weekly column in the South China Morning Post and is a presenter at Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK). He is also a regular guest host on CNBC and Bloomberg and co-author of China’s Oasis – Love, Hope and Opportunity for the Hidden Children of China, which was published in May 2018 (Monarch Books).