Orange News: Hong Kong’s transit-oriented development (TOD) model entails building residential and commercial buildings around public transport hubs so that residents can connect directly with the mass transit system or major bus routes, and not have to walk far to reach a station.
The TOD model highly motivates the public to use public transport. Hong Kong’s public transport network accounts for over 90% of daily journeys. This level of ridership is a higher proportion than in any other city worldwide. Hong Kong public transport operators also offer our citizens efficient and highly satisfactory service. The Hong Kong public should take pride in our transport network and promote it to the rest of the world.
Yet, even as the Government continues promoting the “railway as a backbone” development strategy, franchised buses still play an important role in Hong Kong’s urban mobility as the second largest carrier of passengers. The well-established bus network complements the city’s comprehensive rail transport network. Bus service plays a key role in feeding passengers to railways. The government must recognise the bus service plays a considerable role in the Government’s “railway as a backbone” vision.
The Hong Kong Climate Action Plan 2050 (“CAP”) and Roadmap on Popularisation of Electric Vehicles in 2021 (“EV Roadmap”) set a clear target for electrifying private vehicles. However, both documents do not provide concrete plans for decarbonising our franchised bus fleet. In the meantime, Mainland China and the UK have each laid out the comprehensive actions needed to achieve zero carbon emission road transport before 2060 and 2050 respectively.
Unfortunately, the impact of COVID-19 has reduced ridership. Furthermore, geopolitical tensions have instigated fuel price volatility. Combined, these factors create pressure and uncertainty on local bus operators.
The Hong Kong Government should therefore prioritise decarbonising franchised buses. Crucially, a decarbonised bus fleet will improve roadside air quality significantly. In turn, the improved air quality will bring a positive impact on public health. Despite efforts to improve air quality over the past decade, the air pollution level in Hong Kong is still dangerously high. For example, the annual average concentration of roadside nitrogen dioxide (a major air pollutant) exceeded the World Health Organization’s most stringent level by over 600% in 2021. On top of air quality improvements, bus service is also a more effective way to decarbonise our road transport; filling one double-decker bus with commuters removes at least 75 private cars from Hong Kong’s congested roads.
Zero-emissions busses do not come without their limitations. Current zero-emission buses may have at least 20% lower passenger capacity compared to the presently operating diesel buses due to the need for extra space to fit in the vehicle’s battery.
Much like how other cities have selected certain technologies to match their needs, Hong Kong has unique requirements. These include intensive air-conditioning requirements, three-axle double-deck loadings, and an operating range of 300-450km per day.
These needs create significant performance uncertainties for bus companies when planning for the deployment of zero-emission buses. Operators may need to deploy an extra number of vehicles and drivers to maintain service levels and reliability, which bears significant implications for operations, cost, and land use.
Furthermore, battery electric buses (BEBs) require additional depot space for the installation of charging stations, switch rooms, and transformers. Unfortunately, the Government is countercurrent to progress in this regard, as bus companies and Charge Point Operators (CPOs) are finding it difficult to navigate various Government departments to find sufficient space to provide charging services.
Recently, a bus operator introduced the world’s first air-conditioned tri-axle double-decker Hydrogen Fuel Cell Bus (HFCB) to Hong Kong; this technology is a potential solution to ensure a fully zero-emission bus fleet.
While HFCB is a potential technology that should not be ruled out, Hong Kong does not have the requisite regulation and infrastructure to enable trials of hydrogen fuel cell buses.
If and when HFBCs pass through trials safely and successfully, they will also face challenges in their supply structure and fuelling system, as the technology is unlike any other vehicular energy source.
Furthermore, the logistics behind hydrogen fuelling stations and storage tanks will need to be understood and developed, especially as space in Hong Kong generally, or in bus termini and depots specifically, is limited for hydrogen storage facilities.
For either technology, a unified charging configuration and standard of the battery must be decided upon. A clear protocol for handling all batteries at their life-end should also be established to minimise their environmental impact.
The decarbonisation of our bus fleet presents exciting new opportunities. Hong Kong must further study the local application of both technologies in parallel, as their performances are uncertain in Hong Kong’s operating conditions. Moving forward, the Government should lead investments in trials of both zero-emission technologies to bring sufficient scale and coordination towards finding the right path forward for decarbonising mobility.
Deployment trials will be a basis for a well-informed decision on which vehicular technologies to select, and on when and how to simultaneously phase out the existing buses and phase in the new fleet.
To facilitate the trials and the transition in terms of a regulatory framework, amendments should be made to current regulations on bus specifications, such as on bus weight and length.
Specifically for hydrogen buses, the Government should amend Hong Kong’s outdated hydrogen regulations. The Government should also lay out a framework for the logistics of supplying green hydrogen to Hong Kong. On this note, we are encouraged by the Environment Bureau’s decision to launch a review of the barriers to hydrogen vehicle implementation.
To supplement the zero-emission transition for the franchise buses, all franchised bus operators, power companies, and a variety of academic, research, and non-profit organisations, joined together to form the Zero Emissions Mobility Consortium (ZEMC).
The ZEMC believes that a policy package is needed to address the city’s unique green transportation operating challenges for Hong Kong to meet its carbon neutrality goals. The Consortium looks forward to working with the government to realise the zero-emission goal for Hong Kong and create a time-specific road transport decarbonisation roadmap.
Originally published on Orange News on 26 Jul 2022. Written by Lawrence Iu.