[URBAN NOTE] "The Unique Genius of Hong Kong's Public Transportation System"
The Atlantic's Neil Padukone has an article up suggesting that Hong Kong's Mass Transit Railway public transit system should be a model for other urban areas' mass transit systems. It's hugely profitable. How? Real estate.
Like no other system in the world, the MTR understands the monetary value of urban density—in other words, what economists call "agglomeration.” Hong Kong is one of the world’s densest cities, and businesses depend on the metro to ferry customers from one side of the territory to another. As a result, the MTR strikes a bargain with shop owners: In exchange for transporting customers, the transit agency receives a cut of the mall’s profit, signs a co-ownership agreement, or accepts a percentage of property development fees. In many cases, the MTR owns the entire mall itself. The Hong Kong metro essentially functions as part of a vertically integrated business that, through a "rail plus property" model, controls both the means of transit and the places passengers visit upon departure. Two of the tallest skyscrapers in Hong Kong are MTR properties, as are many of the offices, malls, and residences next to every transit station (some of which even have direct underground connections to the train). Not to mention, all of the retail within subway stations, which themselves double as large shopping complexes, is leased from MTR.
The profits from these real estate ventures, as well as that 85 percent farebox surplus, subsidize transit development: proceeds pay for capital expansion as well as upgrades. The MTR’s financial largesse means that the transit system requires less maintenance and service interruptions, which in turn reduces operating costs, streamlines capital investments, and encourages more people to use transit to get around. And more customers means more money, even if fares are relatively cheap: most commutes fall between HK $4 and HK$20 (about 50 cents to $3), depending on distance. (In London, by comparison, a Tube journey can cost as much as $18). Fare increases in Hong Kong are limited by regulations linking fares to inflation and profits, and the territory’s government recently started giving a HK $600-per-month travel stipend to low-income households, defined as those earning less than HK $10,000 a month.
This model of transit management works partly because Hong Kong is a closed system: There are no suburbs from which people can commute by car, so there are strong incentives for everyone within the territory to use the system. This feature, combined with other regulations, has kept car ownership low: 6 of every 100 vehicles in Hong Kong are for personal use, whereas the number in the U.S. is closer to 70. And while the NYC subway was built over a century ago and was neglected during much of the 20th century’s suburban sprawl, Hong Kong’s metro was only developed in the late 1970s. As a result, it doesn’t have to rely on signals technologies from the 1930s that are only slowly being upgraded (hence the track closures in New York).
As an independent corporation with the government serving as majority shareholder (rather than a public agency, ministry, or authority), the MTR has the freedom to develop real estate, to hire and fire who it will, and to take business-minded decisions—whereas other transit systems, including the one in New York, must deal with union contracts and legal restrictions. In Hong Kong, these value charges are often displaced onto consumers, causing real estate prices to go up a little faster than they otherwise might.