A Reflection on Public Transportation

I rely on public transportation everyday. I take the train to work, sometimes the bus or the tram. I also occasionally walk when the weather is nice. I should be honest though, it takes me 20-25 minutes to get from my front door to the office no matter which type of transportation I use; walking, bus, MTR. I enjoy having choices.

I also have a fairly precise system. On weekdays I always take the MTR, so I can collect 10 rides and get a free pass for the weekend. When I go to work, I get on at the 6th car, at the door with the handicap accessible sign, because it is the door that is the closest to my exit in Causeway Bay. When I go home or to Central, it is the last door of the 3rd car. In central it is essential: this door is closest to the stairs and escalator that are nearest to exits A, B, C and D. People run to the escalator, arms straight down at their sides, clutching a briefcase, shoving to reach the way out before everyone else crowds around the foot of the moving stairs. Those 30 seconds will probably make or break their day. Obviously. I weave my way out behind the runners, and take the stairs. It’s a bit slower, but it is also less crowded and annoying.

On the weekends I take whatever seems most convenient. If there is a bus at the stop when I arrive, I will take it. If there isn’t a bus, I won’t wait; doing so would add up to 10 minutes to my commute. If there is a tram pulling in, and the weather is cool, I will hop on the tram for only 2.30 HKD; I can pay in change. If neither option is available, I might take the MTR. If I am annoyed at going up and down 4 sets of escalators in the morning, I will probably just walk.

The last week, however, was unusual. I was on Lantau on the holiday, and was planning to ferry back to Hong Kong Island in the evening. We looked up the schedule, there was a ferry scheduled at 6pm, and we arrived at 5:50. We thought we were set. We were wrong.

When we got to the pier there was a massive crowd: a few hundred people trying to get to HK island for the festival fireworks. A few others were going for different reasons, maybe dinner, drinks. The signs over the entrances to the boats had the “next sailing” labeled at 18:40 and 20:00, with nothing labeled for “this sailing.” People tightly packed in around both entrances, hoping for a change, while we scrambled around trying to find out what was going on.

The schedule was messed up because of the festivities. The fireworks were going off in the harbor, so the ferries were canceled for the duration. Three ferries remained going to HK island. But because of the crowd, they added an extra at 18:05. We budged into the line and refused to let people budge past us, but it was not enough. 10 minutes after the announcement the ferry was filled to capacity, the next one sailed at 6:40. The crowd still packed in like a mosh pit.

Pete wanted me to see the fireworks, I wanted to remove myself from the crowd. “Why don’t we go get beers and wait for the crowd to leave?” It took us serious shoving and determination to move out of the thick of it. The worst of it was when I had to squeeze past a frail looking old woman being sheltered from the outside forces by her grown daughter. I took extra care to make sure my work bag and my overnight bag didn’t hit her in the face.

We encountered an acquaintance with his daughter on his way to the fireworks, and informed him of the difficulties. He pondered the dilemma, and mentioned they had also been invited to a party on this island, maybe they would go to that. We invited him for a beer, and I talked to the disgruntled 8 year old daughter for a minute as we walked. She wasn’t so into the idea of beers.

They soon left us for the party, thereby cheering the feminine spirit. I spent the next three hours drinking beer, convincing them I didn’t need any of the famous Chinese Fireworks because I am American, then drinking wine and eating generic Turkish food at the restaurant I’d wanted to try. (side note: The mezze platter left much to be desired. Let it be known that any Turkish restaurant that serves humus is not nearly authentic enough. It is hard to find humus at a restaurant in Turkey, they should instead serve spicy tomato based things and olives.)

At 9 o’clock, we once again checked the pier. It was full of people, and busloads were still coming from the other side of the island. The next ferry was more than 30 minutes away. We drove to Tung Chung and took the train. Home a mere 5 hours after we had originally intended to leave.

The next morning we discovered there had been an accident. The front page of the BBC informed us that 36 people had died in a ferry crash. A ferry bound for Lamma island and a private chartered ferry disembarking from said island rammed into each other roughly a thousand meters offshore. The private ferry made a Titanic dive, nose up. The extra traffic, bad scheduling, and firework display created the biggest ferry tragedy since 1971 when a typhoon wrecked a Macao ferry that had anchored to avoid damage. For more on Monday’s event go here: http://hongwrong.com/lamma-ferry-disaster/

Then on Wednesday, the first working day after the holiday, the MTR also suffered an accident. We arrived at the station Wednesday morning, to find a staff member writing some delays on a white board, in Cantonese and English. We skipped reading it, and went on in. We discovered problems: massive crowds waiting, and a train bursting with bodies of commuters. The train that was in the station was full, and the doors tried to close, reopened, closed again, and then it stayed in the station for another minute. The next train arrived 5 minutes later.

You must understand that the trains normally come every 2 minutes during rush hour. They are always full, with just enough room for everyone. There were now a third as many trains as usual.

The next train rolled into the station 5 minutes later, and 1 person exited from the door in front of us. We did not board. The same door closing routine occurred, then this train also suffocatingly waited in the station. We promptly gave up and left the MTR. We went up the long escalator to the pay gates, swiped our cards (it cost 3.6 HKD to leave) and took the other escalators up to the stairs, to climb back to the outside world.

There were further problems above ground. The buses were handling the repercussions of the MTR delays, so many were not taking on new passengers. Pete had never bused to work in the city, so we had to look at the signage to determine the proper course of action. The first bus that arrived bound for Central, #18, was not accepting passengers. We were about to give up when he spotted one for Admiralty, which is almost Central, and he darted onto the behemoth. He arrived at work an hour late.

I walked. I stopped in a Starbucks for tea, and I sat and read The Standard. There were articles about the Ferry incident; the death toll was now 38, two children were missing, the captains had all been arrested, people were confused, 3 days of mourning had been declared. CY Leung was being criticized for thinking about using Chinese facilities to help.

I arrived at the office 5 minutes late, to sit down for Mandarin class, and I was the third of 9 students to arrive. Vivien, our instructor, took a taxi from Sheung Wan to get to us 15 minutes late. Erica joined us 30 minutes late, as she had waited 25 minutes to board the train. Another co-worker had waited 25 minutes to switch trains in Admiralty. Later that evening, a friend reported that a coworker of hers had arrived an hour late and announced, “I am late and I am unhappy!”

We later discovered that a metal beam had crashed into a window in the Sheung Wan MTR. Closing down both Sheung Wan-the end of the Island Line-and Central-one of the busiest stations in HK. http://hongwrong.com/mtr-chaos/

It was a bad week for public transport, yet Hong Kong still has the most effective system of any place I have ever been. It is cheap, fast, and I can get anywhere on a bus or a train or a ferry. It is shocking how much I rely upon it. I would be stranded on an island if there were any less. When one type doesn’t work, there is usually another method to pursue.

In conclusion, I am spoiled.

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