Hong Kong Subway Rider Experience

Hong Kong has a reputation being a very modern city and its public transportation system lived up to that reputation. Sandwiched between hills and the harbor, the city has an extensive road infrastructure, but it is the subway system, the MRT, that keeps the city moving.

Riding the Rails

THong Kong's subway is a pleasure to ride because they are clean (no food or drink allowed) and are on time. And by on time, I mean on time with the MRT achieving 99.9% on time performance. That's insane. As proud as I am of the MBTA, I admit to feeling a bit spoiled riding such a pristine and reliable system.

The stored value card for the MRT is the Octopus Card. It functions the same as the Charlie Card in Boston, albeit with a much cooler name. Sadly, there is no picture of an actual octopus on the card, neither is the card octopus shaped, but any subway must have room for improvement. 

Like every subway station we have visited in Asia, Hong Kong numbers the exits of their stations. This small addition makes life much easier as a tourist as directions can tell me specifically which exit to take to get to a sight.

Hong Kong also makes extensive use of cross platform interchanges, also called cross platform transfers (yes, I find this fascinating). At a station that features two lines, the station platform features an island with two different subway lines. This allows passengers to change between two lines without changing platforms and greatly speeds up commuting. It makes commuting substantially easier and is an extremely wise facet of subway design. 

Signage at a station featuring a cross platform interchange of the 3 and 4 lines

It's a little difficult to explain, so I'll share an example from Boston. I often change from the Red Line to the Green Line at Park Street Station. When I arrive on the Red Line I arrive at a platform that is an island between two Red Line trains going opposite directions. I walk up stairs to another platform in order to board the Green Line. If Park Street was a cross platform interchange station, I would step out of the Red Line train and conveniently walk right across the platform to a Green Line train on the same level. Red Line trains going in the opposite direction would be on another platform with the opposite direction Green Line trains.

This purple line train is approaching a station with a green line interchange. The lights on the map highlight the upcoming stops on this purple train as well as the stops on the green line train that will be directly across the platform at the next station.

Fares and Operating Expenses

Like most subway systems in Asia, Hong Kong uses a distance based fare system. Unlike most systems in the world, Hong Kong has a farebox recovery ratio (you read that right) of over 100%. Their 186% farebox recovery ration is likely the highest in the world.

Farebox recovery ratio is a way to measure how much of the operating expenses of a transportation system are covered by the fares paid by riders. In Boston and most other cities with subways, the cost of a fare to ride the subway does not cover the cost of running the subway. Some of the cost is covered by a the government either through a direct line in the government's budget or though some sort of tax that goes towards public transportation costs.

In Boston, the farebox recover ratio is about 44%. Some other American cities do better, with Washington and San Francisco at around 63%. In a perfect world, you would want your system to have a farebox recovery ratio of at least 100%, meaning that the entire cost to run the system is paid for by the fares of the riders. Having learned about public transportation in Boston, I had grown accustomed to the idea that farebox recovery ratios could never get near 100%. Now I'm learning about Hong Kong where not only to the fares cover the cost of the ride, but the system turns a profit.

Map of the entire MRT system

Map of the entire MRT system

So how does Hong Kong do it? What they don't do is charge high fare. Since fares are distance based they are variable, with some rides the same or less than Boston and some long rides more, but not largely more. While the full answer is far too complex for this blog post, one reason is that Hong Kong's system is much more modern (whereas Boston's subway is ancient) and that they have capital to invest in and improve the system. The MBTA (and perhaps Boston) would have to be fundamentally transformed to match the ratio of Hong Kong. In the meantime, though, there are lessons to be learned from Hong Kong -- in particular, as I have suggested previously, it would be very little work but a big payoff to number the exits at MBTA stations.