Friday Fun: A day in the life of Hong Kong’s subway
Hong Kong's mass rapid transit (MRT) system boasts a high quality of service, an important factor in making sustainable transport the way to go for urban residents. Photo by Lileepod/Flickr.

Hong Kong’s mass transit railway (MTR) system boasts a high quality of service, an important factor in making sustainable transport the way to go for urban residents. Photo by Lileepod/Flickr.

Transport and urban planners spend much of their time thinking about distance to stations, fare pricing, and the key components that make sustainable transport systems work at a basic level, but they sometimes forget the smaller details that make transport work well. However, it’s precisely these “small” details that contribute to people’s experience and perception of sustainable transport, which in turn contributes to how likely they are to use it. In a recent video created by popular Singapore-based network SPH Razor, host Low Yi Qian went to Hong Kong to showcase how surprisingly enjoyable Hong Kong’s notoriously crowded mass transit railway (MTR) subway system is – which is truly a feat considering 90% of trips are taken using mass transport, contributing to an average of 5 million trips that are taken on the MTR every weekday.

The key to the MTR’s success begins with its Octopus card, which is a contactless stored value card that works on buses and tramways as well as at convenience stores and vending machines. This integrates each of Hong Kong’s transport modes, easing the user’s experience instead of forcing him or her to remember the quirks of myriad different entities. Since people can use their Octopus card for grocery shopping and at many restaurants, having one card contributes to the ease-of-use of the system and in turn how engrained sustainable transport can easily become in residents’ daily routines.

Additionally, there are very basic aspects of Hong Kong’s MTR, like the fact that it runs from 5:30 am to 1 am every day, 99% of trips run on time, and trains arrive every other minute, that all contribute to the mental calculation what mode users will choose for each trip. Think of why many people still hold onto their cars – the flexibility and mobility with one’s schedule and the lack of a closing time are likely to be high on the list. By having the MTR run constantly 19 hours a day, transport times fade as the central concern when considering how to get to a destination.

There are also seemingly tiny design details in Hong Kong’s MTR stations that impact how users experience the subway. Free Internet, large hallways, and clear signage allow users to feel comfortable in the station, yet move quickly and effectively through the system when they need to. Ushers wait at platforms to help people queue up for the train, and can use gates to control the flow of traffic. If not designed correctly, the stations could easily have become overcrowded, with people constantly lost and frustrated. The MTR ably manages to balance the demands of a vibrant city with individuals’ desire for a clean, safe, and efficient mode of transport.

Hong Kong’s system would not be appropriate for every city – it was created in a city that had the financial capability to invest in a costly system and the high-density development that made this particular transport mode effective. However, as many countries are rapidly urbanizing, city leaders and planners that understand both the large-scale patterns of development around transport modes as well as the small details that contribute to the experience of using a subway can help emerging cities understand vital components of what makes both a successful and enjoyable mode of transport.

For a piece of what it’s like riding on Hong Kong’s MTR, watch the video here:

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