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Monday, August 22, 2016, 23:58

Our city planners should consider building bridges instead of tunnels

By N. Balakrishnan

As the Hong Kong government took over the Eastern Harbour Crossing from the private owners as the BOT (Build-Operate-Transfer) contract expired earlier this month, one has to ask whether it would have been better to have built a bridge instead of tunnel to connect Kowloon and Hong Kong Island in the past.

Our city planners should consider building bridges instead of tunnels History of course cannot be undone. But it is still worthwhile to look at scenarios of “what might have been” so that as we plan the future we use some of the lessons from the past. Victoria Harbour is not very wide; it is only about 900 meters wide now, shrunken from the 2.3-km width it was in the 19th century before the various land reclamations started diminishing it.

So the width of the harbor, especially its current width, is no barrier to building a bridge. There are bridges that are many times longer and 20 km and 30 km bridges are quite common in the world now. While the length is not a real barrier, the fact that the harbor still has busy shipping traffic might be.

Those who look out at the harbor will notice that the large container ships no longer go through the channel in front of Central but stop far to the west at the Kwai Chung port. Now that the cruise terminal is also moving to Kai Tak, there really will be very few large ships traversing the Victoria Harbour around Central and Wan Chai. As for the other shipping traffic, a bridge can be constructed high enough to accommodate the other shipping and ferry traffic.

I am not an engineer but I am sure that whatever engineering challenges there would be in constructing a bridge could be overcome. The problem with the tunnels is that they are really funnels at both ends and lead to massive traffic jams at either entrance. Thus bridges can be more effective traffic solutions. It is true that the ramps leading to a bridge can take up a lot of land on either side, which is a consideration in land-scarce Hong Kong. But interminable traffic congestion which does not seem to be diminished by the existing three tunnels is something that has to be taken into consideration too. I am sure that the fourth tunnel, under construction as part of the Shatin to Central MTR line, will not solve the traffic problems either.

I have looked at other island cities with both tunnels and bridges and I must say whatever the technical merit of bridges and tunnels may be, bridges win handsomely when it comes to aesthetics. I am sure that, like me, you must have seen the Brooklyn Bridge in New York countless times in movies and paintings. Have you ever seen a movie, other than perhaps a disaster movie, based on the various tunnels that connect Manhattan island in New York? Can we even imagine San Francisco without its Golden Gate Bridge?

The Tsing Ma Bridge in Hong Kong is longer than the Golden Gate Bridge and is beautiful in its own way, but it is in the wrong place and away from the city center of Hong Kong. But tunnels are never romantic and in fact evoke imagery of rats scurrying around underground. Even Robert Moses, the man who built the tunnels and bridges of New York, is quoted as saying that tunnels are where the cars go to the toilet!

The people and vehicle traffic in Hong Kong now runs more along the north-south direction since the Chinese mainland is in the north. I take the MTR almost every day and I see that the traffic planners have really miscalculated badly about the people traffic in Hong Kong. I transit through Kowloon Tong Station which is struggling to fulfill its newfound role as a first transfer point for the people traffic from the mainland, for it was originally designed to cater to the traffic of a sleepy suburban station filled with schools.

The traffic planners also messed up badly by not introducing electronic road pricing back in the 1970s when they first tried it. It is clear that Hong Kong badly needs some form of electronic road pricing but traffic planners seem to be too afraid to even raise the possibility.

The old “solutions” to Hong Kong’s traffic problems, such as tunnels and more tunnels, are no longer working well and it is about time the planners tried to do something more imaginative and bold to give the city a solution that can emerge as a tourist landmark and a source of pride for the city. How about a “Nine Dragons Bridge” with undulating suspensions shaped like a dragon?

The author is a former foreign correspondent and has been a successful entrepreneur in Southeast Asia and India.

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