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New tech is the solution to road congestion

The government launched a three-month public consultation Friday on the implementation of an electronic road pricing (ERP) pilot scheme to address the problem of worsening traffic congestion in Hong Kong.

The question of whether to impose a congestion charge on motorists as a permanent measure to reduce rush-hour traffic in our city center has been discussed on and off since the 1980s, and the public has yet to reach a consensus on this issue.

Any suggestion to introduce rush-hour tolls is bound to provoke controversy and heated debate.

However, we should at least give the government some credit this time for taking the plunge and making an attempt to resolve the congestion problem using technology.

In fact, when it comes to the development and application of a “smart road” system — which allows motorists and commuters to have access to a wide range of real-time information on traffic flow and road conditions through online platforms to save their time and enhance road safety — Hong Kong lags far behind many major cities around the world.

The bureaucratic mindset of our transport officials, their tunnel vision and their failure to plan ahead are the major obstacles to the application of new technologies to our roads.

For example, the Singapore government launched the My Transport app several years ago.

It provides commuters with access to unified and real-time information about the estimated time of arrival of public buses.

In Hong Kong, however, commuters have to download apps from different bus service providers to get the same kind of information, not to mention that the information these apps provide is often insufficient and not really real-time.

More and more carmakers are beginning to install telematics systems in their cars that turn a vehicle into a “smart car”.

Drivers have access to all sorts of road information through the digital screen on the dashboard.

It is estimated that in as little as five years’ time, one in every five cars rolling off production lines will have a built-in telematics system.

Unfortunately, in Hong Kong, our traffic laws are completely out of touch with the latest developments in technologies on the road.

For example, under existing legislation, there are rigid restrictions on the kind of information allowed to be displayed on a dashboard screen, so as not to distract drivers.

GPS maps and real-time road data are not on the list.

The laws may be well-intentioned, but they are obviously outdated.

It seems that not only do our officials need to think outside the box, but our laws too have to be amended to keep up with the times.

While it remains to be seen whether the ERP pilot scheme will eventually take off, I believe the government should stay the course in applying new technologies to the road, which could turn out to be enormously helpful in resolving our problem of traffic congestion.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec. 14.

Translation by Alan Lee

Office Of Hon. Charles Mok, Legislative Councillor (IT)