Hong Kong Construction Costs

I think we have found the #2 city in urban rail construction costs, behind only New York. This is Hong Kong, setting a world record for the most expensive urban el and encroaching on Singapore for most expensive non-New York subway.

As we look for more data to add to our transit costs website, I looked at Hong Kong to see what was going on. I remembered that its costs were high, but didn’t remember details – I think the project I was thinking of was the longest, the Sha Tin to Central link, but I looked at all recent, under construction, and planned MTR lines. I summarized the results on Twitter, but I’d like to cover this in more detail here.

The projects and their costs

Tung Chung Line extension: a planned line for construction in 2023-30, a total of 1.8 km underground, HK$18.7 billion, or around US$3.1 billion, or $1,730 million per km. Even giving it 1.8 km seems like I’m doing Hong Kong a favor – the extension is 1.3 km, and the other 500 meters are overrun tracks at the Hong Kong Island end, which I don’t ever count elsewhere since it is not in-service trackage. In addition to the tunneling (and single underground station), there is a single at-grade infill station, whose contribution to the budget is approximately zero.

West Island Line: 3 km underground, HK$18.5 billion. This is around US$3.4 billion, or $1,130 million per km. Only six lines globally are more expensive than this: phase 6 of the Circle line in Singapore, and the five New York lines, of which three are not even open yet. This is not even regional rail, but construction is entirely within the Hong Kong CBD, explaining why it is so expensive even by local standards.

Sha Tin-Central: 17 km, HK$87.3 billion, or around US$14.5 billion. This is $850 million per km. The line is not even fully underground, just 90%: the northernmost segment, totaling around 10%, is elevated. This line near-ties Crossrail and the Melbourne Metro Tunnel for most expensive line in the world longer than about 5 km – New York is building short lines, the longest (Gateway) around 5 km depending on source. The line is partially regional rail: it includes a 6 km extension of the East Rail Line under Victoria Harbour toward Admiralty, but the other 10 km is not regional rail.

Tuen Mon South Extension: 2.4 km, HK$11.4 billion, all elevated, in an outlying residential area. This is $790 million per km, making it the world’s most expensive el – New York’s most recent els, the JFK and Newark Airport connectors, were positively reasonable by this standard, only around $270 million/km adjusted for inflation (but don’t worry, the PATH estimates in the near future are a lot worse).

Kwun Tong Line extension: 2.6 km, HK$7.2 billion (same source as West Island). This is around US$1.3 billion, or $500 million per km. It’s the standard high cost of projects around the world, common for regional rail tunnels and CBD tunneling, except that this is strictly on the Kowloon side without as much older infrastructure to cross – it even misses a connection to the East Rail Line.

South Island Line (East): 7 km, HK$16.9 billion, around US$3 billion – see same source as West Island, or SCMP reporting. This is $430 million per km. This is not a fully underground line: as explained here, 2 km is on viaduct, serving Ap Lei Chau. Notice also that the original cost estimate was HK$7 billion, but by the time construction rose the budget had risen to $12.4 billion, and the final budget was $16.9 billion.

Is Hong Kong in the Anglosphere?

I’ve argued before that the single biggest predictor of an urban rail project’s cost is whether it is in the Anglosphere – the correlation of an Anglosphere dummy in our database is 0.54, more than even whether the project is underground or elevated. So it’s worth asking, is Hong Kong in the Anglosphere? There are arguments both ways, but I believe the preponderance of evidence points to yes.

  • Hong Kong was under British rule until 1997.
  • The legal system is traditionally based on English common law, even if there’s been a recent shift toward Chinese law.
  • There is extensive exchange of knowledge with the core (white) Anglosphere, with managers who’ve moved around like Jay Walder, political leaders who have second passports in the UK (like Carrie Lam) or sometimes Canada or Australia, and Anglo media that reprints MTR press releases about its property development model.
  • The design layout of the MTR has obvious British influences, including for example the use of cross-platform transfers between the core lines. Similarities with China are the result of convergent evolution (China is influenced by the USSR, which was influenced by Britain). There are some similarities with Japan, like the smartcard system’s use as electronic money, but they are smaller.
  • Hong Kong’s love of privatization and high inequality is very Thatcherite. Again, the similarities with Japan are smaller – Japan’s privatization is slower, and Japanese corporations rely on mutual obligations whereas Hong Kong (like Singapore) expects brutal working hours of employees without offering them lifetime employment in return.

The one non-British aspect of the MTR is its use of property development subsidies (and before anyone asks: no, the costs above are just infrastructure, not property development). MTR expansion is funded by a mixture of property development, for which the MTR receives land at below-market rates, and more direct subsidies.

However, this is still more an Anglo aspect than an Asian one. Democratic East Asia notably does not give corporations land for below-market prices, not in the 21st century. Moreover, the British fascination with the Hong Kong model, which fascination is not present in France or Germany or probably anywhere else with reasonable construction costs and democratic constraints on the state, suggests that the elites in Britain and the US would like to be governed this way, just as many would like to be governed by the Lee clan. There is, in contrast, almost no curiosity about democratic East Asian governance, even after that 200 million people region proved itself to deal with corona better than any other.

Corona is a little awkward to bring in because Hong Kong’s infection numbers look like those of an East Asian democracy (it has the civil service of one), whereas the most similar country to Hong Kong on most matters, Singapore, has those of a Gulf state full of indentured migrant workers who got infected at extremely high rates. But for engineering, it doesn’t seem terribly important what the immigration numbers are – for example, Sweden and Norway are extremely similar to Finland even though they have way more immigrants, and likewise Saudi Arabia is similar to the other, immigrant-heavier Gulf states. So overall, Hong Kong’s public transport situation can be seen as very similar to Singapore’s – and Singapore has very high costs as well.

What does this mean?

I don’t know. Singapore and Hong Kong’s costs are probably higher than those of the core Anglosphere, but I am uncertain – Singapore’s big projects are not unusually expensive by Canadian or British standards, and the Sha Tin-Central link is legitimately difficult, the kind that Sweden would build for $250 million/km rather than for $130 million/km. So it’s hard to tell whether there is something about Hong Kong that goes beyond standard Anglo dysfunction.

I do not know what Hong Kong’s historic costs were. I expect them not to be so high – Singapore’s weren’t through phases 1-5 of the Circle line, and only exploded with the Downtown and Thomson lines, and Canada’s only exploded in the late 2000s and 2010s as it decided to privatize state planning and adopt design-build contracting.

However, in the present and near future, Hong Kong is a model to study purely for its failures, much like Singapore. The leaders of Hong Kong, in their rush to emulate Chinese repression tactics, should perhaps also learn something from Chinese construction techniques – or, ideally, Korean ones, Korea being the only Asian country among the world’s cheapest. People in other countries should aim to study Hong Kong’s infrastructure construction as an example to avoid, and not one to emulate.

37 comments

  1. michaelrjames

    It is strange that both Singapore and HK have very high construction costs, especially as they were relatively low at some point. And for most of their histories their governing powers were quite parsimonious, sometimes counter-productively. However: I do not know what Hong Kong’s historic costs were. Why not? The whole system is no older than 1979 so there must be plenty of documentation? An analysis of this would surely be very informative, and beyond just local factors.

    I think your last para is too crude. Construction costs are important but are just one issue. HK, and in large measure Singapore, serves as a model of transit cities because they have very low road km and usage; HK has the world’s lowest km of roads (for a big city). In turn this points to the dependence on transit. In these terms HK is wildly successful and one could easily make the case that the cost is not just worth it, but TINA (There Is No Alternative). It doesn’t justify whatever is causing this cost explosion, especially if it is insider-dealing by the titans of industry who run HK (well, less and less as the CPC takes over) but equally it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t build new stuff. The MTR itself is run very efficiently, both operationally and financially. Your take implies the choice should be to not build something when it costs so much, yet HK is one of the richest cities in the world, so in fact it can easily afford to build it. Plus the high costs don’t seem to be holding it back (incidentally one could make the argument that some of these lines being built now are ones avoided and postponed in the past because they were the most difficult; though this doesn’t apply to the Tung Chung extension). In fact your approach is similar to that of the CPC who were strongly against them building the new airport and associated transport infrastructure including the Airport Express and Tung Chung Metro lines. Because they were paranoid that it was a plot to leave the colony broke at the 1997 handover. It was the world’s largest civil engineering project at the time. But today’s HK is inconceivable without that project.

    Also, from a scientific/technical viewpoint I’d suggest you’d be better focussing on your data (and more complete data; yes, easy for me to say!), then the how/why re high costs, rather than jarring statements as in this last paragraph. I think you are trending too much towards the Bent Flyvbjerg model of criticism of each and every project with little insight as to the why, and worse, if the project was really worth building (most of the world’s big projects would never have been built under his precepts, like the Channel Tunnel, London CrossRail, Sydney Opera House, Copenhagen’s Great Belt Tunnel and Metro etc). In fact, without knowing the how/why on these various projects’ costs, it’s really not meaningful, which is why many cities interested in emulating HK’s MTR in functionality will continue to visit and analyse it. And, despite your usual (and misleading!) criticism, look at the funding model which appears to be coping with those costs.

    • Alon Levy

      Okay, so first of all, I don’t think MTR operating costs are lower than in Taipei, or a bunch of European cities, or Tokyo, or Seoul. It’s making a nice profit off of Hong Kong’s housing shortage, but that mostly gets wasted on ever more expensive construction plus high executive salaries (I think they paid Walder US$1 million a year?), whereas over here we manage to build a subway for $300 million/km and not $1+ billion/km.

      My proposal for Hong Kong would be to first of all throw Lam and her goons in prison. And then be more like Korea and Japan, which have massively lower housing costs because they build more housing. Hong Kong’s housing production on the eve of corona was 4 annual units per 1,000 people; the Seoul region’s was 10, Tokyo’s (city/prefecture, not sure about the suburbs) was 11, the Taipei region’s was 7. The result is that while residents of democratic Asia keep seeing their housing situation improve, Japan having recently overtaken Britain and France in residential space per capita, Hong Kong has probably the most overcrowded housing in the developed world and high housing prices to boot. Ile-de-France, too, figured it should build more housing – the region was building around 7 housing units/1,000 people on the eve of corona, which really did help cool housing prices. That is working, because the goal of the French state is to enhance the welfare of French people, and not to concentrate profits in a private corporation that gets a land monopoly and is viewed as an extension of the state in the same way Huawei executives have endless privileges in the PRC.

      The only parts of the world that are actually interested in emulating Hong Kong are the ones with comparably bad costs. Nobody in the German or French transit discourse thinks Hong Kong is an example to emulate, because over here our mental map of the world is not a thalassocracy hopping from Britain to Canada and Australia and New Zealand and Singapore and Hong Kong, but rather a continental European bloc in which we learn from the Netherlands, from Switzerland, from the Nordic countries, from Austria. We do not think TINA to Thatcherism, we look down on Britain’s inability to govern itself and think TINA to the state. And Hong Kong, whose sales pitch for a generation was “come over, you’ll pay less in taxes and get to feel superior to the locals,” just isn’t interesting over here except to the sort of people who think the EU is a conspiracy to harvest their DNA (P.S. as HK is getting richer this sales pitch is weakening – instead those people move to Thailand).

      • aquaticko

        I really have to throw a question mark up vis a vis Korean housing. I certainly can’t argue that there’s a ton of construction going on, especially in and around Seoul. However, the cost of housing is a MAJOR issue nationwide.

        Partly, this will be due to stagnating wages amid a bifurcating labor market, and partly it’s due to changing population structure (far more single-occupant housing will be needed going forward). I have to imagine that the jeonse system of housing loans (very, very large down payment in exchange for minimal regular payment) plays a role as well; this also feeds into very high consumer debt. Additionally, Koreans seem largely untrusting of non-housing assets as a safe haven for their finances, and so there’s relatively more pressure on the housing market to compensate for an underdeveloped financial market. Finally, the lack of a true regional rail system from Gyeonggi-do to Seoul means that housing within the city proper is more valued, even as the past few decades have seen satellite cities planned and grow and the next decade will see a higher-speed regional rail system develop to remedy that particular problem.

        I grant that I know little enough about the housing situation in Hong Kong and continental Europe to provide adequate comparison, but Koreans generally seem about as happy (or unhappy) with their housing situation as many I read many Japanese and fellow Americans to be.

        • Alon Levy

          Do you know what the average amount of residential area per capita is in Seoul? In Tokyo I think it’s around 37 m^2, which compares with 31 in Paris and the 40s in the major German and Dutch cities. Hong Kong doesn’t report comparable numbers but from what it does report I think it’s in the 20s.

          • aquaticko

            Only figure I could find was 32.9, cited from a 2020 paper behind a paywall. I suppose you could make the argument that this slightly greater space takes pressure off the need to build, but that seems to be compensated for by other mechanisms working the other way. You’ll have access to a lot more data on Korean construction costs than I do, but I don’t think that low housing costs are a significant abetting factor, at least in their case in particular.

      • michaelrjames

        Yeah, I’ve said a lot of that myself but most of it is not the point. The housing crisis has occurred because they stopped building public housing, something HK became renowned for in the post-war period. Other than just getting swept up in neoliberal freemarket bullshit, a theory has it that the handover in 1997 marked a change in attitude. The future was uncertain and so the normal frenetic capitalist imperative became even more brutal and the property speculators squashed public housing programs so as to keep demand pressures at insane levels for the city. That Tung Chung West extension has been delayed for two decades because of the same reasons: a kind of housing apartheid with the estate just west of Tung Chung at Yat Tung being changed from owner-occupied affordable housing for the low-SES to rentals only, because of pressure from the property interests. Of course HK would always have high property prices because it simply doesn’t have any developable land, and can’t be compared to any of those other cases (proper comparisons are with central Tokyo which once had the highest property prices in the world, or Manhattan or SF etc). This might well be one factor in their high cost of building transit. (The South Island line is entirely within steep hillsides which are covered with hi-rise etc.).

        But it’s a bit silly to put any of this at the feet of HK-MTR. Not only is it not its responsibility to substitute for the public housing authority but it wouldn’t be allowed to build social housing on any of the prime sites it has the privilege to develop (or rather, sites that become prime by virtue of the Metro station it builds), and which is intended to provide recurrent income to the MTR operation. It is fairly remarkable that these gangsters agreed to MTR acting as property developer, above and around the MTR stations, but it was either this or increase business taxes to pay for it. This is the model that is, or should be, of interest to city Metro systems worldwide–especially in domains that refuse to fund transit properly–because it is a system that manifestly works. An extremely successful case of value capture to fund public works.

        Although this value-capture is a great feature of HK-MTR, it cannot be the reason why MTR have won management contracts around the world to run public Metro systems or lines, eg. London CrossRail, Sydney Metro Northwest and “Sweden (Stockholm Metro and the MTRX Stockholm-Gothenburg rail link), Beijing, Hangzhou, Macau, Shenzhen, Melbourne …”.

        Other than that, other places have emulated their Octopus card “leading to the development of Navigo card in Paris, Oyster Card in London, Opal Card in New South Wales, NETS FlashPay and EZ-Link in Singapore and many other similar systems around the world”. It became famous for being a card for everything from apartment & house e-key, value-store (e-money), parking meters etc.

        As I said, the cost issue is only one thing. It would be nice to know why their costs are high but there is nothing to say that in emulating how they build and operate HK-MTR the high costs have to be copied. Unless you are saying it doesn’t run of the better transit systems in the world?

        As to throwing Lam and her goons in prison, one finds agreement with Trump’s placing her (and presumably many of her goons) on a no-travel list. A truly despicable traitor to the people of Hong Kong. The only tiny glimmer of hope to cling to is that, not only is she widely hated but Xi has seriously overplayed his hand. Part of this is a totally inadvertent consequence of Trump which has made him think he (Xi) can fight against the entire world. I am sure many of his CPC peers aren’t too happy, at least the ones with any independent thought as it has echoes of Mao’s chaos. Democracy will deal with Trump but it will take powerful individuals within China to deal with Xi and change the toxic path China is heading down.

        • Matthew Hutton

          I think the Chinese have been guided by the US on foreign affairs more than they’d like to admit. And Trump hasn’t been remotely helpful as he’s a moron.

          • michaelrjames

            I think I was quite clear that any good coming out of Trump’s actions is random and accidental. However I believe Xi Jinping’s exploitation of Trumpian chaos and lack of leadership in the west will rebound on him and perhaps China.

        • yuuka

          I seem to recall MTR having been forced to turn some of their air-rights development at Siu Ho Wan or somewhere else to affordable housing, but that’s just me.

    • Nilo

      > HK has the world’s lowest km of roads (for a big city).

      Do you have a source for this? The UN in fact says the opposite, saying compared to most cities in the world Hong Kong devotes a huge amount of space to streets, with the urban core having almost 35% of its land devoted to streets, highest of any of the surveyed cities in Asia, and comparable to Toronto and NYC, the highest performers in the Americas and Europe.

      • Frederick

        Not that surprising actually. Hongkongers can build 10 floors of apartments, offices, malls, or even libraries on a single piece of land. But even such experts in vertical development cannot build 10 floors of roads on a single strip of land, so roads are going to take up more space.

      • michaelrjames

        I assume that UN claim comes from using “developable land” and as I said earlier HK is one of the most constrained places in that regard. But on a per cap basis, see below. HK has very similar population to Singapore but approx. one third the roads per cap.
        Obviously these things are affected by several different factors. Population and geography. So Australia is towards the top because of huge country necessitating a lot of roads but very low population.

        Although I don’t approve of pushing out pedestrians to give ground over to vehicles, HK is very special in this regard and in general has created interesting solutions. Not least because in many places it really has no defined “ground’. So, as a walker/flaneur I approve and walking there is endlessly interesting. This book is fascinating, especially if your into maps and especially 3D maps:
        Cities Without Ground: A Hong Kong Guidebook
        by Adam Frampton, Jonathan D. Solomon
        Paperback – August 25, 2012.
        ISBN-13 : 978-1935935322

        Many residential buildings built on those steep hillsides don’t have convenient road access and is why they have a program of emulating the Mid-levels Escalator(s); ie. they have a plan to install 230 outdoor elevators to improve pedestrian access.
        This shows a tiny selection of some access solutions:
        https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2019/feb/18/city-of-stairs-the-interconnecting-walkways-of-hong-kong
        City of stairs: the interconnecting walkways of Hong Kong
        Hans Leo Maes captures the bridges and stairways that link up the hilly, population-dense city
        Naomi Larsson, 18 Feb 2019

        https://www.nationmaster.com/country-info/stats/Transport/Highways/Paved/Per-capita
        DEFINITION: total length of the paved parts of the highway system Per capita figures expressed per 1,000 population.
        Rank…..COUNTRY……km/1000 popn DATE
        1………….Austria…………24.96 km……….2000
        5………….Australia………16.6 km…………1999
        6………….Spain…………..16.46 km……….1999
        7………….Canada………..15.86 km……….2002
        9………….France………….15.18 km……….2000
        11…………USA…………….14.39 km……….2002
        18…………Switzerland…….9.88 km……….2000
        23…………EU…………………9.11 km……….2005
        24…………Italy………………..8.43 km………1999
        32…………Netherlands…….6.63 km………1999
        37…………UK…………………6.33 km………1999
        117………..Singapore………0.776 km……..1999
        158………..Hong Kong…….0.277 km……..1999

        • Nilo

          You didn’t say road space per capita. You said, “HK, and in large measure Singapore, serves as a model of transit cities because they have very low road km and usage; HK has the world’s lowest km of roads (for a big city).” I was point out that in terms of land area devoted to streets they are actually very high. If you mean per capita I would not find that surprising as Hong Kong is probably the densest city in the developed world. You however did not say that. You said there’s not a lot of space devoted to roads, which is false.

          • Henry

            @adirondacker: this is mostly because Hong Kong the territory is extremely mountainous, to the point where there are streets that are just staircases. Something like 40% of land has been set aside as park, because it is too steep to build on otherwise and Hong Kong already has major issues with landslides during typhoons.

          • adirondacker12800

            That they have a lot of park doesn’t make it more dense than Singapore. Or Queens.

          • Nilo

            Most of NYC is easily developable Hong Kong is not, admittedly Hong Kong actually refuses to develop land that should be develop, but what we’re actually interested in is the density of the built up area. Hong Kong’s density for the built up area is almost 93.5k per square mile, which is denser than Manhattan. This is what’s relevant, because this is what the average Hong Konger actually experiences, and what the city has to be built around.

            Link for the interested: https://alainbertaud.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/HK_outline4.pdf

          • michaelrjames

            @Nilo

            Enough rope! Or to mix my metaphors: stop digging.

            I did indeed and the data I provided with its source (which you haven’t provided so we still have to guess what you really meant) shows I was right: it is easy to derive the metric which you want to use in your current post. Here it is for select countries on the original list (table below, last column). I don’t think most people would have needed a calculator to have realised that it doesn’t change the table much. The geographically smaller nations will slip down the list but only Singapore, Switzerland & Netherlands are less than 100x greater than HK. Singapore has greater than two fold road kilometres than HK.

            As in my first response, the only metric that feasibly could be higher could be km per developed or developable land. But I can’t find that and even so I doubt it would be higher. I think you are confused by the fact that in the places a visitor is likely to experience will have great road congestion–which of course is a result of far fewer roads (absolute km) for vehicles to use. The most extreme is Hong Kong island and particularly the narrow strip of Central thru to Wan Chai which has so much squeezed in the tiny bit of flat land (most of which has been reclaimed from the sea) between mountain and ocean. Though, because of this, as described in that book I cited and experienced by any visitor, a pedestrian can traverse this entire zone without interacting with traffic, ie. via elevated or subterranean walkways, elevators, outdoor escalators, funiculars, stairways etc. These are the reasons why 90% of daily journeys are by transit, and no surprise that this is the highest in the world. And incidentally, why they must keep expanding the Metro despite the high cost.

            Even on vehicle ownership Singapore remains ahead of HK (about 700k versus ≈500k) though not by a whole lot, and this despite Singapore making it very difficult and expensive to own a private car. However, by usage Singapore will be further ahead as private vehicles in HK aren’t used so much.

            Rank…..COUNTRY……km/1000 popn DATE……Total km (million)
            1………….Austria…………24.96 km……….2000……222.14
            5………….Australia………16.6 km…………1999……415.0
            6………….Spain…………..16.46 km……….1999
            7………….Canada………..15.86 km……….2002…..602.20
            9………….France………….15.18 km……….2000
            11…………USA…………….14.39 km……….2002…..4,723.35
            18…………Switzerland…….9.88 km……….2000…..84.67
            23…………EU…………………9.11 km……….2005
            24…………Italy………………..8.43 km………1999
            32…………Netherlands…….6.63 km………1999……115.36
            37…………UK…………………6.33 km………1999
            117………..Singapore………0.776 km………1999…..4.42
            158………..Hong Kong…….0.277 km………1999…..2.08

          • michaelrjames

            That is the same UN report you cited last year. I spent considerable time trying to get to the bottom of their argument and here is the crucial bit:

            https://pedestrianobservations.com/2019/07/18/free-public-transportation/#comment-62040
            The UN report “was basically a report counting up how much street space there was in the (city)” but my issue is, to what point? I repeat that it makes no sense to do such a thing (to subtract it from developed land area) if one wants an idea of residential density. Anyway, glancing at that report, I see that it is making the case that cities like Paris, Barcelona etc that were designed (redesigned) in the 19th century are better than later ones, including the suburbs of those same 19th century cities. I assume you are referring to “FIGURE 3.1 LAND ALLOCATED TO STREET (LAS) IN CITIES, EUROPE, NORTH AMERICA & OCEANIA” on page 66, which is a histogram showing that (inner) Paris, London and Barcelona are in the upper range (30-36%) and modern cities are lower, as are these city’s suburbs. While I think he’s a bit obsessed with Paris’ “wide boulevardes” (which don’t dominate the land use quite the way he seems to believe; they are not the dominant typology in inner-Paris) the point really seems to be how inefficient new cities and new suburbs use space.

            In Western Europe, similar patterns can be observed in the city core of Paris, where 30 per cent of land is allocated to streets in the city core versus 13 per cent in suburbs. The sufficient land allocated to streets in the city centre can be associated to the city’s history of urban transformation that was geared to cutting a unique image for the city, with wide boulevards and public spaces around historical monuments.9

            and:

            This can be due to the preponderance of boulevards and avenues, as observed in the city core of Paris, or a regular pattern of wide streets, as observed in Manhattan. However, there is less variation in the street system of Manhattan than in the street network of the city core of Paris where the width of streets varies from 10m in local neighborhoods to 60m in the widest boulevards.

            Yeah, but those boulevardes are a rather sparse skeleton while the dominant form are the quite narrow, mostly original pre-Haussmannian streets and even narrower streets that elsewhere would be called lanes.

            It talks about reclaiming street space, which is what I described for the Eixample in Barcelona. Perhaps the point here is that Paris doesn’t have to because Haussmann already did it (esp. clearing space around monuments etc) which is true. The relevant feature about American cities, including cores, is that all their streets are wide with a subset that are even wider, and actually this is a feature, and the problem, of the Eixample. But so far I think the report is using street space as a proxy for its correlate in these cities: density. Suburbs don’t have as many streets because with such big (SFH) block size, they aren’t needed. It’s the building typology rather than the streets per se that is the more relevant factor. I can’t see the report’s focus on this is relevant to my comparison of dense cities (cores).

            Reading this again just reinforces to me how bizarre is their reasoning. It is simplistic to the point of inanity. But unfortunately that is the kind of thing econocrats lead themselves into, and alas why such “experts” give us all a bad name. (The first author is a statistician who does macroeconomic modelling.) With regard to Hong Kong, it is even less rational. Especially in Central thru to Wan Chai and Causeway Bay because this is the most extreme of what the authors of that book I cited, call City Without Ground. That is, there may be a lot of streets to service the incredible density of commercial and retail activity but there is even more provision for pedestrians–more than anywhere else in the world in my experience–via all those walkways elevated over roads, subterranean tunnels (often tied into transit infrastructure), outdoor escalators, arcades thru buildings (which are regulated as public space in HK; very enlightened), aerial links between adjoining buildings at multiple levels, etc. In other words, the “space” devoted to roads at nominal “ground” level is pretty much meaningless; this ‘treatment’ is simply profoundly inappropriate. And as others here have noted, and anyone who has been to HK knows, the street structure has not inhibited the most dense use of space. (It’s veritably Parisian:-).

            BTW, something you didn’t point out is that those graphs refer only to the core of the cities, which means HK Central etc and the harbour-side zones of HK island. All the data I presented was for whole nations (taking HK as a nation). So, to use an Adirondackerism, you need to sort your apples, oranges and apricots. I can see why you have problems because those graphs use quite contrived measures that are hard to get one’s head around (or relate to the straightforward data in my tables); such as the one on p55 with its title “RATIO OF LAND ALLOCATED STREETS TO STREET DENSITY ..”. Forget apricots, I think that is pure lemon.

          • adirondacker12800

            Most of NYC is easily developable Hong Kong is not
            And Los Angeles is denser than New York CIty if you compare apples to cherry picked data. When you all decide what kind apricot trees you want to pick go right ahead. And the places in the Bronx where the street is a staircase weren’t very easy to develop. Or the places that used to be under water.

          • michaelrjames

            And Los Angeles is denser than New York CIty if you compare apples to cherry picked data.

            You’re funny because that’s exactly what you did to arrive at the notion that HK was less dense than NYC or Singapore. No one compares a raw figure of people per national area for the density of an urban environment. Everyone here, including you, knows that urban Hong Kong is one of the densest, possibly the densest, urban environs on the planet. Just exactly how dense can be argued. If one cherrypicks Central or parts of Kowloon it is easily the densest. If you take “developable” land, less so but still very, very dense. On the same basis LA is many factors less dense than NYC (or the greater NY area using the correct & meaningful measure).

            Speaking of, Wiki gives the population of the Southern District of HK Island as 274k (which is surprisingly low) but the density as only about 7,000/km2. Of course it is meaningless because it is not only the whole southern half of the entire island, uninhabited mountains and reservoirs, national parks but I believe also water along the coast. To get an idea of what true densities there are, the island of Ap Lei Chau (with South Horizons & other hi-rise residential estates) that is the terminus of the South Island Line (East) that we’re talking about has 86,782 (2007) people on its 1.3km2 for density 66,755/km2.

            Alas, in my last post I trapped myself into a What-If question that my curiosity forced me down. Lamma is just 3km from that terminus and houses just 7,000 people on its 13.55km2 (density SFA, ≈516/km2; actual density in the small urban zone is higher but still nothing). What if one reassigned, say, one quarter of the land to urban redevo, and built it to Southern Horizons density? It could house 227,000 residents.(Actually an underestimate as that is at Ap Lei Chau’s density, probably closer to half a mill.) And they would be within a 15 minute metro ride to Central! A weatherproof ride; the fast ferry stops running in poor weather (remember that ferry sinking about a decade ago that killed about 80 people in HK? that was the Yung Shue Wan-Lamma to Central ferry; the Aberdeen-Sok Kwu Wan ferry is both shorter and in more protected waters but is an hour walk from Yung Shue Wan). Now, it seems like it will never happen as these kinds of scenarios (though not with a metro link AFAIK) have been dismissed decades ago, as tempting as all that land must be to developable land-starved HK. It’s why it was designated national park and the building height limit is 3 storeys. And unlike Ap Lei Chau which has almost zero unbuilt or recreational land, it would still retain a great abundance.
            No, I am not advocating for its development.

          • adirondacker12800

            All of you gotta decide on what kind of apricot trees you are gonna pick. Go argue the people who got stuff from official sources, to put in Wikipedia. Not the extra ripe apricots.

    • Henry

      HK is wildly successful at transit because the alternatives are so much worse. The same conditions that make new rail transit expensive (narrow strips of land separated by mountains) also make new road projects pretty much impossible; the newest highway built had to be completely reclaimed from the harbor. Of course <10% people will drive if the going rate for a parking space in an apartment building is $1M USD and the roads are crippled with congestion. And lots of walking and cycling are uncommon given how treacherous the roads are, how hilly the terrain is and how downright unbearable the subtropical heat and rain can be, coupled with the fact that Hong Kong has a 1960s British engineering contempt towards pedestrians (gates at intersections that funnel into either elongated zig-zag crossings or massive pedestrian subways and bridges)

      • michaelrjames

        @Henry

        Of course. But they have done it (built a world class Metro), and provided quite good pedestrianisation in the worst zones (Central etc as I mentioned in an earlier post). Almost certainly it is a big factor in why I love visiting Hong Kong because it is great for a walker who enjoys cities. And why its Metro is so easy to use and why it developed the world’s most innovative and most used transit smartcard. By contrast, London’s Oxford street has been the busiest pedestrian street in Europe for half a century at least and still they squabble about its pedestrianisation which should have happened in the 60s which is when it became seriously awful. In fact it is far worse than the numbers suggest (13,560 ped/h, compared to #2, 12,800 on Munich’s Kaufinger Strasse; equal #3 of ≈10,000 on Calle des Preciados Madrid, the Zeil in Frankfurt and the Champs-Elysées, Paris) because it has relatively narrow sidewalks. Dangerously crowded, cm from traffic and dirty-unkempt too. Made all the worse by English weather when there is no coverage to protect from the miserable damp drizzling down. Some of my worst city experiences are there. I once was in Hong Kong during one of its massive downpours and the streets started filling up with water, even in Central just hundred metres from the ocean, yet it was possible to remain mobile and relatively dry (though the wind can be a problem in places) by using that elaborate pedestrian infrastructure. London transit was seriously awful when I lived there (80s & 90s), in particular the irritating nickel-and-dime fare system and ticket-inspection system on exit (causing massive congestion–esp. near Oxford street!); it has improved since then and their adoption of HK’s Octopus card, ie. Oyster card, has helped.
        Hong Kong has assuredly outperformed and outclassed the mother country. (Except in housing issues where it adopts the worst Anglophone habits of exploitation and financialisation.)

  2. Eric2

    “the most similar country to Hong Kong on most matters, Singapore, has those of a Gulf state full of indentured migrant workers who got infected at extremely high rates”

    The comparison between Singapore and the Gulf states is a good one which I never thought of before. Not limited to covid19 of course – it relates to many aspects of development, government, and society…

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah. Of note, Hong Kong specifically decided not to be like this as I understand it, preferring to be racist like a European or East Asian country or like the Northern US and not like a Gulf Arab or Southeast Asian one or the pre-civil rights Southern US.

    • michaelrjames

      That does raise an interesting issue. Both Singapore and HK have the worst inequality in the rich world (#3 is the USA). Singapore keeps its labor costs low(-ish) by having hundreds of thousands of guestworkers that are poorly paid and housed in barracks etc. HK doesn’t seem to do that so much (though of course in the domestic sector it does have large numbers of Filipino workers) but presumably just relies upon the low pay and conditions of that sector.
      The interesting thing: what is the cost of general building construction? I imagine those property speculators do everything they can to keep their own construction costs low. How does it compare to the transit construction? And of course you have HK-MTR which is doing both, ie. transit construction and property development. Transit is always uniquely designed while residential building uses common templates and a high degree of replication that reduces costs but even so …

      • Henry

        Hong Kong doesn’t need to do this because it has always had a large migrant inflow from China. First it was fleeing the warlords, then fleeing WWII, then fleeing the Great Leap Forward, then fleeing the Cultural Revolution, so on and so forth. China is now a lot more internally stable, but migration from China for economic reasons is still there (though not as strong), and wages can be kept low because even in 2020 applying for permanent residency in Hong Kong is a one-way door for Chinese (you have to give up mainland residency to do so under Chinese law).

  3. yuuka

    It’s quite understandable that Singapore costs are too damn high and the Malaysians rightly refuse to pay Singapore costs for the cross-border RTS, But as I’ve told you before, Alon, a large driver of costs in Singapore is to do with the provision of depots/yards – we tend to overbuild depots and not consider outstabling in stations, or using pocket tracks, as part of day to day operations.

    The thing I don’t get is what the heck are Hong Kong doing, seeing as all the projects you’ve outlined are extensions, and even the new depot for the Shatin to Central link basically takes the place of the old freight yard below Hung Hom station without any expansion needed. Nor are they exactly hardening stations for civil defense like we do, which means no such things like decontamination showers and backup power generators (AFAIK) to keep running through the apocalypse. I’d perhaps blame poor project management, given the ballooning costs and schedule overruns on SCL; it feels like every few months the auditors/HK government dig up some kind of issue much like what’s happening at Crossrail.

    • yuuka

      EDIT: Was skimming and didn’t see you counted SIL(E) at first, but Wong Chuk Hang depot is at-grade and much smaller than the Circle Line depot. It is, however,, offset by the fact that a significant portion of the SCL station at Admiralty was also built by the SIL project, and your slides show just how big and deep the upgraded station is.

      Still begets the question: what the hell are they doing?

      • Henry

        Part of the issue is topography. A lot of the new lines feature long tunneled segments under mountains (Tuen Ma Line has the Diamond Hill-Hin Keng tunnel, SIL-E has the tunnel from Admiralty to Ocean Park, the Express Rail Link is mostly tunnel) which I can’t imagine is common in most urban areas. Many of them also feature stations with massive elevation changes; many of the new stations have entrances at multiple elevations. (MTR stations in general feature large amounts of exits which may make the stations generally more expensive as well.) Some stations (Central South, Causeway Bay North, Happy Valley, Tsz Wan Shan) have had to be axed because geological difficulties made it too challenging.

        Do we have enough data on costs of stations in newly reclaimed land? At least some of the lines proposed are supposed to be serving new reclaimed areas (SCL is tightly wound up with Hong Kong Island reclamation, Tung Chung West/East and Tuen Mun South is also tied up with future reclamation, and the future North Island Line’s alignment has changed several times depending on what kind of reclamation is going to happen)

        • Alon Levy

          Tunnels under mountains tend to be cheaper, because there’s less urban infrastructure to disrupt. Tunnels in landfill are probably like alluvial floodplains like those of Holland and Shanghai, i.e. expensive. Probably. But Tuen Mun South is elevated, so it shouldn’t have problems with geology.

          • michaelrjames

            It may be true that about half of the South Island line is “easy” tunneling between Admiralty and Ocean Park but once at the developed strip on the south coast, it becomes a challenge threading a railway thru that mess of intense urbanism. As can be seen by its mix of viaduct and tunnel to get to the island of Ap Lei Chau. In fact they blamed the station works at Admiralty (where pax must transfer to other lines) for the delay (and presumably cost). Those works involved building an island platform to facilitate easy transfers to the other lines, and was clearly justified despite any cost or difficulties/delays in building it.
            Incidentally this line is to service the new housing in that part of Hong Kong. That island, just off Aberdeen, originally had the main electric generator which was relocated across the waters to Lamma island so that the island (Ap Lei Chau, ie. the terminus of the South Island line-East) could be redeveloped to residential. IIRC, the South Horizons group of hi-rise apartments are exactly on the old generator site. I assume not much “affordable” housing there but this is some of the world’s highest cost real estate. Does any city do it differently? How much affordable housing is at Hudson Yards? We may not agree with it but one can understand the intense financial pressures on any development. I can’t blame MTR for it, especially as these decisions are very long-term and outside its control.

            Previously, from the south of HK island you would have taken a bus either thru the Aberdeen Tunnel (at Causeway Bay on the north side), or the western coastal route. Obviously those routes get more and more congested. As it happens I recommend to visitors, taking the slow route. Instead of a 10 minute metro ride, or 30 minute bus ride, it is more like half a day (and part of a long day cirumferential trip). From Central take the tram (get up top at the front for best views) to the eastern end of the line Chai Wan where you transfer to the bus that heads across the isand to Stanley. It goes over/thru the range and national parks and drives over the top of the dam wall that creates the Tai Tam Tok reservoir (one side is freshwater, the other side is the ocean, this is some of the extreme infrastructure HK has to build). Visit the Stanley markets, maybe have a late breakfast, then another bus heading west along the coast to Aberdeen via Repulse Bay. Then take a ferry across to Lamma. Depending whether you have eaten much en route, you have the option of lunch at the seafood restaurants on the wharves at Sok Kwu Lan next to the ferry terminal in the middle-north coast of Lamma. There is a walking (and cycling) path along the central ridge north-south across the island; >90% of the island is nature reserve and has no roads at all. Paths lead down to various secluded white-sand beaches, if you have the time. You end up at Yung Shue Wan where the relocated generator is, on the north-west pocket, and the only inhabited place. Where you can have a leisurely dinner before taking the fast ferry back to Central (or for more completeness one could return to Sok Kwu Wan and the ferry back to Aberdeen and complete your circumnavigation of HK island). I used to fantasise about living on Lamma as it is wonderfully calm (very few cars, very few roads, most goods movement is by handcart a la Venice), no crowds, almost no tourists and a huge national park for walking & cycling–you could hardly get much different to urban HK, yet only a 20 minute ferry ride from Central. Maybe they will extend the South Island line to the south of south island line, ie. across to Lamma! From South Horizons to the urban patch on Lamma is less than 3km! Nah, I’d be a NIMBY on that one. Even a quick search suggests those previously modest restos at Sok Kwu Wan may have gone upmarket, probably enticing the rich listers across for the night from Aberdeen and now Central via the Metro. It wouldn’t take much overflow from those floating restaurants of Aberdeen harbour.

          • Alon Levy

            Ap Lei Chau is dense, but it’s organized density, with high-rises flanking very wide roads that els can use, rather than the messy density of a favela or Indian slum. It’s easier to build a railway in than the route of M14 (and even the M14 extensions), U5, Milan M4, etc.

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