Dense suburban New Towns – solution for high-growth urban areas?

Ivan Tosics

By Ivan Tosics, on December 17th, 2015

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Picture 1. Tin Shui Wai new town in 2005

Hong Kong is the ’dream’ of urban planners: the city has been consistently developed in the last decades according to the Transit Oriented Development (TOD) principles, creating strong link between urban density and efficient public transport. What are the pros and cons of such a system and to what extent can this become a model for European urban development in high-growth areas?

Imagine that you take a combined metro and fast suburban rail journey out from the centre of a 7 million city. Approaching the end of your 50 minutes (!) long ride you see landscapes like this:

dia1510i 360 Picture 2. Heading towards Siu Hong station


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Picture 3. Tuen Mun MRT station and shopping centre


dia1510i 401 Picture 4. Tuen Mun New Town


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Picture 5. Details of a building in Tuen Mun New Town


After you arrived to the endstation of the fast suburban rail line you discover very close to the station these newly built buildings, besides a 30 th sqm shopping centre  [1].

dia1510i 391 Picture 6. New development at the Tuen Mun MRT station

Taking a further tram ride you get off in a building complex which serves trams, buses and is in the meantime also shopping and leisure center[2].

abc Picture 7. Ocean Walk shopping centre adjacent to the Pier in Tuen Mun


New Towns since 1973
All what you have seen is the result of many decades’ policy of Hong Kong, starting with the idea from 1973 to build dense suburban new settlements. Up until now, nine New Towns have been built and about half of the 7 million population of Hong Kong reside in these newly developed areas.
The pictures were taken in Tuen Mun, one of the ’first generation’ New Towns, built in the 1970s. In the case of Tuen Mun initially only the access motorway was built, and it took decades of huge road congestions until in 2003 the town has finally been reached by the West Rail Line, which is well integrated into the Mass Transit Railway (MTR) system.
The map below shows the position of Tuen Mun (B), 33 km away on road from the center of Hong Kong (A). The originally planned population was 649,000, the actual number of people in 2012 was 486,000.

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Picture 8. Road links between Tuen Mun and Hong Kong centre

With an area of 19 sq km Tuen Mun New Town has a population density of almost 26 th persons per sq km. This is an extremely high value compared to other cities, such as Shenzhen 17 th persons per sq km, Chennai 14 th, Beijing 11,5 th, Istanbul 7,7 th, Hong Kong 7 th, Madrid 5,2 th, Barcelona 4,9 th, Paris 3,6 th, New York 2 th persons per sq km.

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Picture 9. Metro links between Tuen Mun and Hong Kong centre

Being at the end-station of the Western Rail Line, Tuen Mun is well integrated into the public transport system of Hong Kong. However, the distances are large and this shows also in the travel times: it takes almost 40 minutes to reach the other end of the line from where the centre of the city can be approached by exchange to another underground line.


The plans and the realities of New Towns
New Towns have both private and public housing in their residential areas. Tenure mix is a deliberate planning principle of the government, to avoid the problems of one of the early new towns (Tin Shui Wai) which was packed with public housing estates – leading to sluggish economic development and fewer business opportunities due to the high proportion of newly migrated families, who usually earned below-average income.
Most New Towns are planned and developed around a Town Centre, serving as the business, cultural and traffic hub of the Town. This also applies to Tuen Mun New Town where shopping malls, libraries, theatres, government organs, bus terminus can be found in the town centre.
The original objective of the New Towns was to make them self-reliant, i.e. mixed with working places, not making it necessary for the inhabitants to travel every day to the center of Hong Kong. However, this objective failed as secondary industries moved to Mainland China, attracted by the new opportunities raised by the opening up to free market economy. Consequently Hong Kong became gradually a commercial and financial centre in the region. These types of jobs remained in the city centre, thus most residents of the New Towns were forced to travel to the city centre every day[3].
Besides tenure mix, public transportation (and also roads) were carefully planned. Most New Towns were planned and built together with new metro or railway lines – it was only in the New Towns of the west New Territories that direct railway services to the central urban areas were developed with delay.
Hong Kong has one of the best modal split values in the world: public transport carries 72 percent of motorized trips. However, even with this high share of the very efficient public transport and the high residential and employment density, due to the huge distances of the new towns from the city centre the average work trip is eight kilometres each way and the average one-way work trip travel time is 46 minutes (18 minutes longer than Los Angeles or Houston…) [4]

So how can Hong Kong, a prime example of the TOD planning principle with innovative urban development and public transport solutions be evaluated and what lesssons it might deliver for European cities?


One of the most efficient public transport system of the world
Visitors to Hong Kong admire the public transport system: is is extensive, well integrated, the subway and train stations are nice, clean and well served, having wheelchair accessibility, glass doors blocking the tracks, clear and sensible signage. Moreover, the whole system is covered by the Octopus card interoperable touch-and-go fare payment system (similar to the Oyster card in London but introduced much earlier, already in 1997).
How was all this achieved? MTR Corporation, Hong Kong’s first privatized rail and metro company, is operating since long on the “rail plus property” model. It does not only rely on fares but also integrates railway infrastructure with urban development. In the development of new metro and rail systems and building new stations the company has worked with the government to develop other properties in the close areas, e.g. shopping malls, residential towers, office spaces, hotels. Either directly as developer or indirectly, signing an agreement with the developers for a percentage of property development fees, MTR produces large revenues which are re-invested in the further development of the public transport system [5].

Another speciality of Hong Kong’s public transport system is the extremely high farebox recovery ratio (the percentage of operational costs covered by fares): in Hong Kong this is 185 percent, the highest in the world. In European cities this ratio varies between 30% and 90%.
Pricing in public transport in Hong Kong depends on distance. The per km prices are not particularly high, as the following comparison shows[6] Fare level per passenger-km comparison in USD: London 0,40 Tokyo 0,21 Hong Kong, New York, Tokyo Metro 0,15 Chicago 0,12 Taipei 0,11 Singapore 0,08The high farebox recovery ratio might be the consequence of the large distances, efficient service and the high frequency of the usage of public transport



The dilemmas of development based on high density new towns
Hong Kong is special in the spatial pattern of the population: half of the 7 million inhabitants live in the new towns. Real estate in the central areas is extremely expensive, thus the relatively poorer part of the society only finds decent dwellings in the New Towns, some of which (as our example, Tuen Mun) being very far away from the city centre. From these remote New Towns the daily commuting, due to the large distances, is fairly expensive – the modern Octopus card makes travel easier but not really cheaper (a concrete example shows 6% discount [7]).
Under such circumstances it is quite usual that poor people, working on the low hourly minimal wage of 34 HK$ (€4), move into council housing in the further-out New Towns (where waiting lists are shorter). This might be solution for housing but the high transport costs create difficulties to everyday commuting to the city centre for low-wage employment – consequently sooner or later poorer people give up work and live from social benefit.
Thus to become ’transport-poor’ is not only possible in remote rural areas but also at the periphery of large urban areas. This issue is increasingly discussed also in the case of some European cities, especially those which apply the distance-based pricing system. London is a striking example with its distance-based zoning system in which the price of a pass for all zones is so high that it soaks up 10% of the median per capita income (in New York this share is ’only’ 4.2%). Public transport is not so public if it excludes large sections of the city – forcing lower paid people either to give up their inner city job or changing to bus which considerably increases travel time[8]

The example of Hong Kong, with all its innovations and high-end solutions is delivering an important message to the dynamically growing cities of Europe regarding to where and how to direct growth. Transit oriented development via the creation of new towns might be a good solution, provided that it is not accompanied by strictly distance-based public transport fare systems (and/or the new towns are built with sufficient number of new jobs).

This lesson is already understood in a few European cities. One of the examples is Paris, where recently (September 2015) the prices of the all-zone monthly passes has been reduced to €70 – from which the employers reimburse at least 50%. In London similar monthly travelcards cost well above GBP200, creating increasing difficulties for the lower middle class people who have to move outer and outer from the city due to the increasing rents and decreasing housing benefits.


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