Reform Hong Kong’s transport system by opening up data

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Despite being world-famous for our efficient transport system, attempting to get a bus in Hong Kong is always a guessing game. Transport operators adopting a conservative mindset on open data are only edging themselves out of the market. 

Caption:  CityBus currently does not provide information on the arrival times of its urban bus routes (photo credit: Jeni Zhi)

On a sweltering August afternoon, I stand at a bus stop on Queensway wondering when the next 103 bus would arrive. The excruciating heat, oppressive humidity and toxic exhaust fumes engulf my senses as I begin to lose patience. Should I head back down to Admiralty station and brace myself for the rush hour crowds that have grown to exponential proportions due to an earlier signal failure? Or should I continue enduring the anxiety of not knowing where in Narnia the 103 driver is currently stuck in traffic? What has been 20 minutes feels like eternity as I am left in the dark about how long I still have to wait.

Hoping to get an answer, I quickly open up the KMB mobile app to consult the supposedly “live” bus arrival times. To my dismay, the app tells me nothing but two words, “CityBus Period”. Turns out the app only shows arrival times of KMB’s own buses. Even though the 103 is a franchised route jointly operated by KMB and CityBus, KMB can only tell me when the shiny golden double-deckers are going to arrive—the red, blue and yellow ones remains a mystery. Therefore, there is a 1 in 2 chance when attempting to get the bus home that I am going on a blind date; not knowing where my date is or when they are ever going to show up. For the Hong Kong Islanders who solely rely on CityBus or New World First Bus, the suffering is even greater.

The key to an efficient transport system is that more time is spent travelling and less time waiting. While MTR achieves this by having a service frequency of 2-3 minutes, rendering waiting times insignificant, many bus routes in the city in fact provide a fairly infrequent service. For example, the 103 arrives only every 15-20 minutes during most of the day, disregarding the unpredictable nature of traffic conditions. This defeats the purpose when waiting times can often be longer than the trip I am supposed to make. With knowledge of when these buses are going to arrive, passengers can timetable their trip more efficiently and spend less of their precious time anxiously waiting at crowded bus stops.

The trouble with Hong Kong’s public transport system is that it is fragmented into private operators who put their business interests first. The Transport Department does very little to coordinate and integrate different modes of transport into a single brand, even though most people require more than a single mode of transport to complete their journeys. Therefore, situations similar to the aforementioned arise frequently, where there is a need to consult multiple channels to simply gain information about a single bus route.

In a city that prides itself for the convenience of moving about, transport operators need to stop seeing each other as adversaries. Apps such as Citymapper attempt to provide real-time journey planners integrating different forms of transport, but it only has access to live data provided by HK Tramways and KMB. Evidently, much more needs to be done to make the city’s transport system more user-friendly.