Smart mobility? Don’t make us laugh

A black Mercedes with registration mark Why use a Smart Mobility app to find a parking space when you can just be like 'Pasha' and park for free?
A black Mercedes with registration mark "Pasha" blocks a sidewalk in downtown Hong Kong

Why use a Smart Mobility app to find a parking space when you can just be a c**t like ‘Pasha’ and park for free on the sidewalk (100 metres from Central Police Station).

The government today tables a bill to introduce “Smart Mobility” into Hong Kong – a concept which 100% revolves around the provision of “Smart Parking Meters”.

Smart Parking Meters are, in themselves, not the worst idea. Sensors under the road use low power narrowband internet-of-things (NB-IoT) technology to share a parking spot’s occupied status with the cloud. Drivers can then use an app to find available spaces, which, in theory saves time cruising around looking for a spot.

But Hong Kong’s version of ‘smart’ is typically naff, failing to demonstrate any kind of cohesive transport policy or sensible solution to our cramped public space.

Noticeably, the Smart Mobility bill wastes an opportunity to raise on-street parking rates, which have, astonishingly, remained the same since 1997, at HK$2 (26 US cents) per 15 minutes. Yes, that’s US$1 an hour, an un-zoned flat-rate across the whole city and requiring the Legislative Council (LegCo) to vote on any further change. (And yes, that’s the same LegCo which, as we head towards the Christmas Break, is still disagreeing on how to elect its House Committee chairman for the 2019-2020 session…)

But the real question….why would anyone use an app to find parking when there’s free (and risk-free) illegal parking wherever there’s a sidewalk or a spare patch of road? Illegal parking on the street or sidewalk isn’t just common in Hong Kong, it’s the norm.

Squatters’ rights

Outside my house is an illegal parking lot on the sidewalk – we constantly have to walk onto the busy Bonham Road to get around vehicles entirely blocking the path.

A line of vans take over Finance Street in Central Hong Kong: the road has become a de facto illegal car park.

It’s not a traffic jam: vans commandeer Finance Street in central Hong Kong for free parking

That’s small fry… Finance Street, outside IFC, is occupied by a constant chain of hundreds of chauffeured 7-seaters who’ve commandeered the outside lane to wait (engines idling), for their masters “pickup” command. Middle Road should be re-zoned as a parking lot. Albert Road and Glenealy, a brick-throw from Government House, the same: a constant line of illegally parked, illegally idling vans. Man Yee Street. Wellington Street, Lyndhurst Terrace, where the double parking regularly becomes triple parking and the three-lane road becomes effectively 0.75 lanes of carriageway and 2.25 lanes of free parking (while the pedestrians are forced into a wobbly path barely a metre wide). A big part of the problem is the “valet parking” around landmark buildings… the valet-parked vehicles are crammed into every available illegal spot, the parking operator effectively re-selling public space, illegally, to the car owner. Cameron Lane in Tsim Sha Tsui is a tragic example of how greedy parking operators have destroyed a local resource.

Across the city, illegal parkers now enjoy something like squatter’s rights: illegal parking has become quasi-legal and drivers know (without needing a Smart App) where the safest spots are. Police vans cruise by occasionally flashing their blues… perhaps some cars take off, but many just sit, knowing the police will rarely stop to actually enforce the law.

So, asking again, why would anyone need to use an app to find paid parking? Transport policy in Hong Kong favours vehicles (compare, for example, Europe’s tallest building, The Shard, which has just 48 parking spaces, against Hong Kong’s IFC II, which has over 500, not counting the thousands of quasi-legal spaces across the whole IFC land reclamation). Illegal parking is now seen as a demand-side problem rather than a supply-side policy: when illegal parking blights a neighbourhood, the government response is “therefore we need more parking spaces”. A reduction in the ratio of available parking spaces becomes “a cause for concern” rather than a successful implementation of policy to discourage car growth. Coupled with a lack of enforcement, “smart mobility” is meaningless against such sloppy policy thinking.

Environmental and political groups have spread rumours about “smart” technology

Of course the other problem is our civic society seems to have lost its mind. Smart Lampposts, which could have done wonders for reducing speeding and illegal parking offences, were chopped down with chainsaws in August after political party Demosistō spread rumours about the privacy hazards of the government’s HK$272m scheme. Certainly invasive surveillance is an issue in the city, yet taking concerns out on legitimate street technology is self-defeating (Frankly, if the mainland government wishes to have constant surveillance in Hong Kong, it needs only a handful of mainland tourists with smartphones to stand on intersections filming the passersby, something we see every day anyway… they don’t need to hide equipment in a lamppost, something which would require a conspiracy of moon-landing proportions). In this political environment, truly “smart” initiatives from the police – for example, smart monitoring to use AI to reduce illegal parking and “yellow-box” offences in Central – will never materialise, and “Smart Mobility” will continue as a buzzword to maintain the status quo for the wealthy few who own cars in Hong Kong.

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About James Ockenden (300 Articles)
Writer, journalist and sustainability consultant with a passion for clean technology and public health. 25 years covering power and energy markets: former editor of Power Plant Technology, International Power Generation, Asian Electricity, Aircraft Economics, Energy Risk, Asia Risk, Benchmark; writer for South China Morning Post, Cathay Dragon's Silkroad, APlus, Veolia's "Planet", Hong Kong Tatler; founder of Blue Skies China. MSocSc in Corporate Environmental Governance, University of Hong Kong; BA & MA degree in Natural Sciences (major in Materials Science & Metallurgy), Cambridge University.
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