What was delightfully anachronistic ten years ago now looks more like poverty porn. Rotting piers, rotting spools of rope littered with cigarette butts, clouds of black smoke from diesel smokestacks and, unlikely in 2022, all-male crews: dozens of old codgers below decks filling cup noodles from oddly large kettles.
The fact that the Star Ferry service is in the red is no surprise: it lost money even before the pandemic, even with 20 million annual passengers. This is quite a feat considering the franchise is allowed to pocket all rental income from its Central, Wan Chai and Tsim Sha Tsui piers, and does not pay for any pier rentals itself.
The service is a victim of its own “iconic” status. The operators and the government have shown an almost criminal lack of imagination and ambition, enjoying third place in every “Five Things You Absolutely Must Do Before You Die” article ever written.
As Norway rolled out high-speed carbon fiber electric ferries with inductively charging moorings without magnetic cables in all the fjords, and Uber prepared Uber Boat river buses in London, the most exciting thing the Star Ferry could tell lawmakers last year was free Wi-Fi and a gas-lit connection to the government’s data portal. (The company was not streaming real-time data, which one would assume from the information, but simply sending its set schedule and fee schedule to the data portal – probably via fax).
So what can we do? A Reuters editorial recently suggested that tycoons could step in and save the iconic green and white boats – tempting, given that the monthly losses are quite small in Hong Kong terms: one-day parking tickets, to put the things in perspective.
But the tycoons won’t touch it with the current model. The Star Ferry operates on a 15-year franchise, which means that no one will invest serious money to improve the infrastructure.
These piers alone, especially the decrepit carcass of Tsim Sha Tsui, could be worth a fortune with an investment, but a franchisee cannot invest. Even if they could, the risk of another company swinging on the rig and stealing it on lease renewal day is too much to bear.
So a first step in saving the Star Ferry might be to buy out the franchise, adopt an MTR ownership model or something like the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority model. Create the quasi-private Star Ferry Authority with enough freedom from mindless bureaucracy to do something ambitious and enough secure income to invest and innovate.
Then make the Star Ferry useful again. The ferry’s “iconic” status does not come from the outstanding views, it stems from the combination of utility and beauty, the juxtaposition of the mundane ride with the dazzling cityscape, a brief stasis between the shores giving the daily journey an almost meditative quality.
But ferries now account for just one percent of public transport journeys in Hong Kong, a figure the government uses (in the usual circular fashion) to suggest that ferries are a sideshow.
As such, we’ve had stubborn resistance to the idea of new routes: Tuen Mun to Central, for example, which could provide a great route for people who are tired of being crammed into crawling buses.
And we’ve suffered the pain of mind-blowing initiatives like the Water Taxi, for which the best solution involves the Noonday Gun and about 90 pounds of glowing cannonballs.
With just an ounce of ambition from the Department of Transport, the ferries could not only bring commuters to work and tourists to the waterfront lawns of Kai Tak and West Kowloon. They also have enormous potential to handle the meteoric growth of the local freight sector.
Other cities have harnessed water transport with cargo bikes for a carbon-free delivery system, and ferry docks as mini-hubs for HKTV Mall and SF Express make perfect sense.
That’s where the technology comes in: electric boats, automated mooring lines for fast turning and cost-effective operation, and spacious lower decks for bikes, cargo bikes and dogs (good dogs only, of course) – widening local clientele and diversifying away from mainland tourists.
One of my favorite ferry encounters was a guy with an electric scooter, Doug, who ended up loaning me the machine for several months while he recovered from surgery.
Doug, who lives in “downtown” Wan Chai, likes the mix of e-mobility and the ferry, as the scooter turns the looooong walk from town to the pier into a short hop.
Connecting the different modes – walk, bike, scooter, MTR and bus – is essential to keep the ferry alive.
Bikes are allowed on the ferry right now, to be fair, but only on the off-peak Wan Chai service, and it costs more to take a bike across the harbor ($20.2 on weekends) than to drive a car through the Cross Harbor Tunnel ($20).
E-scooter Doug told me he was considering buying a Brompton bike next, as he likes the portability of the e-scooter but prefers something more active (and is worried about the illegality of the scooter, probably because I keep sending him pictures of e-scooter arrests).
It’s a great progression of transportation: not from MTR to car, as we’ve seen so much during the pandemic, but from electric scooter to folding bike, with the ferry as the backbone.
Compare Doug’s experience with the sad story of former FTU lawmaker Ho Kai-ming, who during the historic debate over Ted Hui Chi-fung’s 2017 “bicycle motion” (perhaps the best LegCo time), recounted how he wished, as a rookie legislator, to commute between Mong Kok and Tamar on a bicycle.
He found it difficult. Bikes are banned in Tamar and banned on the Central Star Ferry route (and biking between the Central Pier and Tamar requires at least one dismount), so he reverted to the MTR.
Ho is now Under Secretary of Labor and Welfare – what a missed opportunity for active transportation to have had a senior government official with a daily habit of cycling and ferrying.
If the Star Ferry dies, it will not be because of the Covid. It will be because of idiocy like its bike rules that kept people like Ho away, and government policy that moved the piers and then stubbornly kept them isolated – physically and financially – from the city.
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