I’m no stranger to the transit system in Hong Kong, having used it on trips to the city since the 1980s. However, on a recent six-day visit there, the purpose of which was to focus on the Hong Kong public transit network and operation, I was astonished at how well it works.

I’ve never used Hong Kong public transit exclusively until this trip, and I did it without even trying hard.  Public transit in Hong Kong is so good, I now realize, there is no need to drive or to take a private car or taxi.

During our six days in town, my wife and I made our way around 100% via transit, plus the use of our own feet. Our Hong Kong transit modes on that trip included ferries, double-decker buses, light rail trains, and subway trains (also called Rapid Transit trains).

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Hong Kong Airport train station at Kowloon

We got off to a good start by using the Airport Express train to get into the city when we arrived, which connected at the Kowloon station to free buses that drop passengers at hotels or workplaces.

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K1 free shuttle bus at Kowloon Airport train station to get to hotels

We stayed with public transit through to our return to the airport, too, never once using a taxi or private car. What a joy it was to be able to do that.

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Bus from Kowloon to Hong Kong Airport

MTR (Metropolitan Transit Railway) runs it all in Hong Kong, including most of the big buses (see https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/MTR), and MTR’s “Octopus Card,” which can be recharged like a prepaid credit card, is the universal fare payment option for all MTR services and most other public transit modes. The Octopus Card is indispensable, thanks to the dense Hong Kong transit network on which it can be used. The card, combined with the frequent and dense transit network, freed us from ever having to seek out private conveyance.

The stats for the MTR system are astonishing, as Wikipedia notes:

“The Mass Transit Railway (MTR) is a major public transport network serving Hong Kong. Operated by the MTR Corporation Limited (MTRCL), it consists of heavy rail, light rail, and feeder bus service centred on an 11-line rapid transit network serving the urbanised areas of Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, and the New Territories.

“The system currently includes 135.6 miles of rail with 159 stations, including 91 heavy rail stations and 68 light rail stops.

“The MTR is one of the most profitable metro systems in the world. It had a farebox recovery ratio of 187% in 2015, the world’s highest.”

Transit types (modes):

  Heavy rail

  High-speed rail

  Light rail

  Airport Express

  Inter-city rail

  MTR Bus

Number of lines:

  Heavy rail: 11

  Light rail: 12

Number of stations:

  Heavy rail: 93

  Light rail: 68

Daily ridership:

  Rapid transit (subway and above ground): 4.815 million

  Others: 0.628 million (April 2018)

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MTR Rapid Transit trains run above ground in New Territories, below ground in Kowloon and Hong Kong Island.

5.4 million daily transit riders out of a total Hong Kong population of 7.4 million is mind-boggling.

Trains run every few minutes all day, yet so many riders choose transit that the trains can be at capacity even during off-peak hours.

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MTR transit “Bumblebee Lady” uses a “stop” paddle to regulate riders entering subway trains during busy periods.

At peak times MTR dispatches hundreds of “Bumblebee Ladies” (my name for them, as they are dressed in yellow and black tunics) to act as traffic cops at subway and light rail stations. They keep queues orderly and patrons civil as they wait to be stuffed into completely full trains. I am pretty certain MTR borrowed the technique from Tokyo Transit, and it works well. MTR must hire for cheerfulness, because every such lady we encountered was upbeat, happy, and eager to help. Very knowledgeable as well.

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“Bumblebee Ladies” patrol the MTR subway/rapid transit platforms and are happy to help riders!

Having ridden extensively over all three regions of Hong Kong (Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, and New Territories) below and above ground by bus and rail for six days, I can attest my awe at the robust infrastructure, especially of the rail networks. Everything works, and it’s all so clean and new-looking. The reach and scope of the entirely electrified rail network alone makes me jealous; we in the United States are so very far behind.

Fellow blogger and New Yorker Ralph Raffio (Mr. Meatball) visited Hong Kong for the first time not long ago and came away with the same feeling.  Here’s what Ralph said to me about Hong Kong transit:

“Nobody (except for Disney maybe) moves people from one place to another as efficiently as they do in Hong Kong. Every major U.S. city ought to have the equivalent of Hong Kong’s transit system, including  the Octopus card. If I was the mayor of New York, I’d get myself to Hong Kong pronto, and bring back a few of their mass transit officials with me.”

Hong Kong transit is all easy to use, too. My wife and I quickly mastered the Airport Express train, as well as the buses, light rail, and subway lines throughout Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, and New Territories.

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Indicators on board each subway/rapid transit car tell riders which stop to take for connections to other rapid transit lines (above).

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Subway/rapid transit platform signs (above) announce train arrivals. Signage isn’t necessary on some lines because trains run more or less continuously every few minutes all day.

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Station signs like the one above direct riders to the correct exits to their destinations. This feature quickly becomes addictive, especially at underground stations with multiple exits.

As already mentioned, Bumblebee Ladies manage queues at peak periods when trains exceed capacity (even when trains are coming every 3 minutes).

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During off-peak times, trains are not so crowded, but seats are still at a premium (above). Note everyone doing what we all do, utterly engrossed in our Smartphones. My observation was that transit riders are of all ages, but skewed to a younger demographic, as seen in this photo.  Note how clean the train looks. That’s amazing considering 4.8 million subway riders per day.

If the Research Triangle in our area had a public transit network this broad and deep, I could leave my car at home for most trips.

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The bus system is as good as the rail system, too. See above photos of the MTR buses. Double-decker buses in Hong Kong are standard, not something for tourists (there are very few single level buses). Note all the routes shown at this one stop listed on the sign (above photo). And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

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Also note the high density residential building of the type that’s common in Hong Kong (above photo). A lot higher than we are used to in the Research Triangle, yet this is one of hundreds like it there.  All that residential density feeds public transit ridership.

In fact, MTR (the Hong Kong transit agency) maintains a mind-boggling network of ultra-frequent bus services, and all the buses are roomy, fast, and those nimble double-decker jobs, as I said above. The buses run everywhere to connect to the rapid transit and light rail lines. The rail lines, combined with the spider-web of frequent bus services, plus the convenience of swiping the Octopus Card for fare payment, are what make driving unnecessary.

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Nearly every bus route in the three regions of Hong Kong (Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, and New Territories) runs at frequent intervals of 3 minutes to 15 minutes. The bilevel buses increase capacity (note capacity of bus in the above photo), which is usually 90 seated and 47 standing, for a total of 137 per bus.

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I couldn’t much tell the difference between peak and off-peak frequencies. Buses run all the time and are masters of Hong Kong roadways (above photo was taken shortly after 1:00 PM, hardly rush hour). Buses rule!

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MTR sells advertisements wrapped on buses (above photo), which no doubt boosts its revenues.

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Though Hong Kong streets do not have dedicated bus lanes, long lanes on each block are for buses only (above photo), often stretching the entire block from corner to corner. These areas are dedicated bus stops, and other vehicles are prohibited. This has the effect of expediting the stops. It’s a pleasure to watch it in action, as bus after bus efficiently enters, stops, and returns to traffic lanes. Other vehicles routinely give way to the many hundreds of buses on every street.

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Adjacent to the stops are painted queue-up areas for specific bus routes (above photo). Also note the bus-only lane striping in the street I was describing in the previous paragraph.

The big impediment to driving in Hong Kong is 24/7 roadway congestion. Buses get preference lanes, though not in BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) dedicated lanes. Public transit is so pervasive and convenient and comfortable that no one needs to own a car except for vanity.

On board all buses are digital signs announcing the next stop in Cantonese and English. Automated recorded verbal announcements are made in both languages of the next stop, too.

MTR trains have lots of realtime information signs at stations and on trains to direct passengers; however, MTR has not yet found it necessary to utilize such electronic signs for bus stops. Every stop is sheltered, well-marked and signed, identifying which routes stop there and directing patrons to the correct sidewalk queue-up lanes. Bus schedules are printed in two languages at each stop.

I found these inexpensive, passive bus information devices extremely easy to use. They were always accurate in my experience and met my needs without requiring any other means, such as a system map. As someone who has always pitched for electronic signage at bus stops, I am now convinced such expensive measures are not warranted everywhere.

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Photo above is of the incredible Octopus Card, which is the universal fare payment means for all Hong Kong transit, including ferries. Just tap the card as you board a bus, ferry, trolley, rapid transit train, or light rail train; the card reader on the vehicle beeps and shows the amount remaining on the card. The Octopus Card is essentially a rechargeable debit card for transit. It can be replenished at MTR stations at ATM-like machines in 30 seconds or less.

Note my card is marked “Elder” which cost just HK$2 per ride (about 30 U.S. cents) on most transit modes. Sometimes age has its benefits.

I guess I never realized how much mobility freedom such a card provides: Just get on any transit mode and tap it to ride. An Octopus Card equivalent perfectly complements a frequent transit network. When we have such a universal fare payment system in the Research Triangle that works everywhere and on every mode, I believe we will begin to see big increases in ridership based on the convenience of using one card.

My wife and I became ardent MTR bus riders. Trains, too, but the bus network is essential to connect us to the rail stations, and often the bus alone met our needs in Hong Kong. I am still amazed that we spent almost a week there using 100% public transit, never once getting into a taxi or private car. That wasn’t our plan when we arrived, but the convenience of the Octopus Card and the incredible MTR bus and rail network got us to the literal far reaches of Hong Kong.

And it was all fun and easy to use. Otherwise, we would have taken taxis.

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