Mass Transit Railway, day teet, subway, metro, or just MTR—whatever you call it, the Hong Kong subway system is a masterpiece.
I know, I know. Call me crazy. For a boy born and raised in California, land of the car, the idea that I would take public transportation (and even more surprisingly absolutely love it) can seem a bit crazy. Even I can’t rationally explain my admiration for this feat of transportation engineering. But it goes a little something like this.
Imagine if getting to work every day in Sacramento were as easy as taking a four-minute walk, two long escalators, and a quick three-minute train ride.
Junior Manson Tung will be teaching at Hong Kong Summerbridge from June 21-August 15. He will be writing periodic blogs about his experience living, working, and traveling around Asia.
It’s never late, has air conditioning, is impervious to street-level traffic issues, and has its own air filtration system. It’s well lit, safe, cheap, fast and easy-to-use. And all signage is in English and Chinese.
Did I mention that you don’t have to find a parking space, don’t have to pay for that parking space and don’t have to fill up on gas?
In Hong Kong, a compact space can go for figures as astronomical as $250,000 USD. And that is in a regular building. Homes in California are literally as expensive as a space to put your car here thanks to a massive population in a tiny land area, but that’s for a later blog.
And the best part is that most of the popular places in the city can be reached without ever having to leave the tunnels. (Times Square, International Finance Center, International Commerce Center, the Peninsula Hotel and many other places are all connected via underground tunnels.)
In addition, the subway can take you from all three shopping districts (Causeway Bay, Mong Kok and Tsim Sha Tsui) to Disneyland, to the airport, to the countryside and back again.
There are no nasty food smells because eating is banned, and unlike the Mainland, the ban is adhered to here. Smoking is also banned, and the stations are relatively devoid of superfluous objects, exhibits or items.
If it doesn’t aid in the transportation of people, or speed up the process, then it can’t be found on the MTR.
In fact, there aren’t even any public bathrooms on the MTR. While many think of this as a negative, it keeps the station clean and smell free.
Truly, the upsides to the MTR are practically limitless.
One of the coolest features of the MTR is the use of the Octopus electronic payment system, rechargeable at any of the stations.
Unlike a credit card, no sliding is required for use of a Octopus card, so many people just stick it at the bottom of their bags and slide the bags over the readers as they are walking through the turnstiles.
You can buy things at the grocery store and at neighborhood stores with the Octopus system, and it has been so successful even some stores across the border in Shenzhen accept it as a form of payment.
In typical Hong Kong fashion, the MTR has operated with a laissez faire system. The government doesn’t provide any financial backing whatsoever, and besides backing the system and approving new lines to expand the ever growing spider’s web of lines, really plays no part in the MTR story.
Instead, the company has churned out record-breaking profits by taking control of what is arguably the most valuable asset in the city, land. By becoming a landlord MTR has been able to keep its prices low and its ridership at around 5 million people a day.
Think about it. The entire population of the greater Sacramento area is only a million people. So they move five Sacramentos every single day, and they do it with a 99.9 percent on-time rate.
If this sounds like a commercial for the MTR, I swear it’s not. I’m just seriously in love with this form of mass transit.
While the trains do become very crowded at peak hours, in the MTR system you are almost always moving, whereas I’m not going anywhere on Highway 50 during rush hour.
In fact, this morning I became a little curious about just how convenient the MTR is. So I turned on my stopwatch app and took the Island line train to Causeway Bay. From my apartment on the 26th floor, it took two minutes to get down to street level. Another two-and-a-half minutes were needed to make the quick walk to the Fortress Hill MTR station. It took three minutes to descend several hundred feet into Hong Kong via various staircases and escalators, and another four minutes to make the three-stop journey to Causeway Bay. Total price for the journey: $4 HKD, or about 50 cents USD.
While I wouldn’t use the light rail in Sacramento (it just isn’t that cheap or convenient), I am in love with the MTR.