Tag Archives: Pearl River Delta

Traffic Rules Part I

Traffic1The difference between a developed metropolis and a developing one isn’t transportation — it’s the rules and discipline about how that transportation is used. A city like Hong Kong flows because everyone follows the rules. A city like Jakarta doesn’t because people don’t. It’s not about building more roads, or more subways, or more bus lanes, but about developing rules that ensure existing transportation is used as it should be. Cars, people, trains and buses flow because they each agree to a set of rules that ensure that flow. In effect it’s like one big sliding puzzle. The bits move around because there’s space for them to move around.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s just people stopping at red lights, or people allowing passengers to alight before they try to embark. The rules can be sophisticated or basic, but they only work if they’re followed: In Hong Kong a taxi driver won’t cross a thick white line even if there’s no traffic around; in Jakarta there are several red lights around the city that cars don’t bother to even stop at. In one city nothing is negotiable; in another everything is. A new buslane in Jakarta that’s officially off limits to all vehicles except buses and emergency vehicles is already awash with ordinary traffic.

Somehow in Hong Kong the rules have become the norm, and no one needs to be around to enforce them. Everyone keeps everyone else in line. In Jakarta, the rules are seen as an obstacle, something to be overcome. It’s not as if drivers in Hong Kong are somehow collaborating in a fit of consideration, but there is a tacit recognition that by following the rules, everyone will benefit. Even in pedestrian overpasses, somehow a rule establishes itself — everyone walks on the left, say, and the two-way flow is optimized. It doesn’t seem hard and fast; the next day everyone seems to be walking on the right. But it works. A self-organizing system.

Jakarta is not. It’s a free-for-all. Or actually, it’s has its own rules. It’s just they’re not optimized for the situation. The bigger the vehicle, for example, the more it will take precedence over other vehicles. And a car in Hong Kong won’t pull into traffic if by doing so it will slow down that traffic. This is what the Stop/Give way/Yield sign is for. A car in Jakarta will do the opposite: It will pull out slowly, inching into the road until the traffic is forced to slow down to accommodate it. In fact the dominance of unwritten traffic rules in a city like Jakarta ensure that traffic will never work efficiently.

Until those rules are replaced with rules that work and the discipline to ensure they’re followed, developing cities will never become developed ones. It’s not about the infrastructure. It’s about the way it’s used.

Cellphone Bubbles And The Virtual Tribe

Looking for something else on the Net I stumbled upon this five-year-old piece from Jonathan Rowe in Washington Monthly, Reach Out And Annoy Someone. Some good stuff in there, but I particularly liked some stuff he wrote about Hong Kong, about the ‘lonely bubble’ of the cellphone user in public:

And what does that suggest about where this “communications revolution” is taking us? When I was in Hong Kong a year and a half ago, it was becoming a cell-phone hell. The official statistics said there was one phone for every two people, but it often felt like two for one. They were everywhere; the table scenes in the splendid food courts in the high rise malls were San Francisco to the second or third power. At a table with four people, two or three might be talking on the phone. You’d see a couple on a date, and one was talking on the phone.

In a way I could understand the fixation. Hong Kong is crowded almost beyond belief. It makes parts of Manhattan feel like Kansas, and I suspect that a cell phone offers an escape, a kind of crack in space. It is an entrance to a realm in which you are the center of attention, the star. Access becomes a status symbol in itself. A lawyer friend of mine there described the new ritual at the start of business meetings. Everyone puts their cell phone on the conference table, next to their legal pad, almost like a gun. My power call against yours, gweilo (Chinese for foreigner; literally “ghost”). The smallest ones are the most expensive, and therefore have the most status.

Some things are different now: the coolest cellphones are not small, they’re flat. And in a way not talking on the cellphone is cooler than talking on it. (Everyone now has a phone, so the actual talking-to-show-you-have-a-phone thing is superfluous. Silence is cool again.)

And the ‘cellphone bubble’ is not so much about status as about being part of a ‘virtual tribe’: Wherever you are, you have an ally you can count on to talk to, yanking you out of the fear of being alone, or of having to communicate to those around you, of having to participate.

It’s turned society on its head. No longer do we congregate to define ourselves. We do so via ‘virtual tribes’ that exist in a kind of telephonic continuum, via voice and SMS, as we wander around, largely isolated from the physical world around us.

Hong Kong’s Unseen Icon

Hong Kong is a very practical city — you’ve got to be, with everyone living on top of each other — but sometimes I wonder whether it’s also an overly conservative one. For example, the other day I was very impressed at how one restaurant, which only accepts cash, brings the change in anticipation of what bill you’ll pay with. Put a HK$500 down on the bill wallet, and with a flourish worthy of a magician, the wallet is opened at another page with the change already there. Charming, and practical, saving time, and footleather.

But that’s the only restaurant I’ve seen this at. Maybe there are more, but you would think an innovation like this would quickly catch on elsewhere. So far, it seems, it hasn’t.

Jak0310(41)To me the biggest area that is ripe for some innovation like that is the Hong Kong cart/trolley. It’s ubiquitous, and as long as I’ve been visiting Hong Kong it’s been here. For those of you haven’t seen one, it’s a very simple design: four small wheels, larger than a baby-buggy, but smaller than a child’s bicycle, overlaid with a metal frame and sometimes a wooden board. The handle is a simple iron rod bent at the top. That’s pretty much it.

Now, these things are everywhere. Out to grab a coffee this morning I spotted about 30. They’re so commonplace they’re invisible, which is tricky in a place where pedestrians or cars cover every inch of spare sidewalk or road. Somehow, the folk that use these things manage to navigate their way through the throng without any ankles removed, people upended or worse.

And they are used to carry everything. I started snapping a few, but quickly ran out of space on my cellphone before I could capture the full range:

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‘A yellow-booted guy transporting live fish’

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‘Dude Unloading Boxes’

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‘Guy Shovelling Sand Into Baskets’

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‘Man (Or Woman) Pushing Chair Backs Down Lee Garden Road’

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‘Gas Cannisters Locked To A Tree’

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‘Guy Pushing Water Containers With Reading Matter in Hip Pocket’

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‘Woman Pushing Pile of Crap Down Lee Garden Road’

and the rather poignant ‘Elderly Woman With Empty Trolley Heading Off to Times Square’:

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OK, you get the idea. They’re multifunctional. They’re used by a wide swathe of age-groups and users. They’re also good for parking on Hong Kong’s many inclines:

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Indeed, you can park them more or less anywhere, secure in the knowledge that no one looks at them twice:

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Clearly these trolleys are useful. But to me they’re still badly designed. You can see as much from the various customizations that their users have introduced. In the picture above, for example, you can see the classic ‘One Rope Across the Handle Bar’ hack which helps stuff not fall off the back. Variants on these include the ‘Multi Rope Web’ which does a better job, basically by tying as much rope or string across the back of the handle as possible. Those without rope can try the ‘Piece Of Cardboard Across The Handle Kept In Place By Tape Hack’:

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All of these look aesthetically awful, but have endured as long as I’ve been coming to Hong Kong, which is 16 years. Then there’s the problem of the handle itself. Not much you can do with it, except try the “Bag Hanging Hack” which is illustrated thus:

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Or the street-cleaners (yes they use them too) “Bag Hanging Hack + Bamboo Pole with Warning Red Flag On”:

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But to me all these hacks cry out for a better design. There must be a better way of transporting stuff around in Hong Kong. Of course, there are other methods, from the old delivery bicycle:

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(I love the Chinese handwriting and telephone number painted on.) There’s also the smaller two-wheeled trolley concept:

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But the four-wheeled trolley is by far the most popular. To me it’s an icon of Hong Kong and a testament to the grit and attitude of its people that they are still as common as they were a decade or so ago. I imagine that without these trolleys, Hong Kong would grind to a standstill:

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Still, I’m no designer, but I would have thought that these trolleys could be better designed, or some of the common hacks one sees on existing models could be built into future models? Or would that ruin the Unseen Icon of Hong Kong?