Multiple modes of mass mobility

One nice thing about visiting cities is that they generally have at least some mass transit options available. In the case of Hong Kong, the question was really what mass transit options weren’t available, not which ones were. There is the Airport Express train in from the airport, the MTR (subway/metro), trams, busses, green mini-busses (green = go) and red ones (red=stop; don’t use them) and the Star ferry back and forth across Victoria Harbor. In the five days I was in Hong Kong I actually managed to use all of them (and a taxi or two, for good measure), except the red mini-busses. The best part about the options in Hong Kong was the frequency of service. I never waited more than 3-4 minutes for the MTR or more than 10 for a bus or mini-bus. I never experienced the crazy crowds on the MTR, though I was there during a holiday period. Things did start to fill up more towards the end of the trip, and I can see how it would be very crowded, but with the frequency of service I’m not sure it’d be too big an issue.

Another nice thing about the HK transit options is that they all run on the same smart card system, called an Octopus card. It is similar to the system in place in Atlanta, Washington, DC and Chicago with a card that you can add value to as necessary and then just tap it on the sensor every time you get on or off one of the rides and the fare is deducted automatically. The card also can be used at all the 7-11 shops around town and a number of other retail establishments. You can get a card at the airport and use it for the duration of your stay. There is a HK$50 deposit that you get back at the Airport Express station when you get back to the airport. When you’re adding value to the card it is done in HK$50 or 100 increments, which I thought was going to leave me with some unused value on the card that would be part of my donation to the Hong Kong Mass Transit system. I was pleasantly surprised when I was actually given the cash back for the remaining balance, in addition to the HK$50 deposit, when I returned the card. When getting the card there are a few options, including a “tourist” pass that allows for three days unlimited use of the MTR in addition to a one way or round trip Airport Express fare. Thanks to a combination of jet lag, confusion and not paying attention, I didn’t realize that the unlimited was actually only for the MTR and not all the Octopus-enabled transit options, which left me in a very confused state trying to get off the tram at one point, though fortunately I did have the fare available in cash to avoid a real problem. I also managed to get an extra day of MTR rides somehow, I think, though maybe they don’t charge for the first day you ride the Airport Express, or maybe I got some special deal because I came in after 9pm or something. Still, at HK$70 for the unlimited MTR for 3 days, and the fact that you’ll get back whatever money you don’t spend, the tourist card is actually a pretty bad deal unless you’re taking a lot of rides (they’re ~HK$4-6 per ride in the main areas of town) or taking some longer rides each day. Others had told me that this was the case, and I should’ve listened to them. Lesson learned.

One thing I wasn’t prepared for is the size of the MTR stations – they’re huge. I think that the largest station in the NYC subway system is Times Square, with three different sets of tracks spanning a pretty large area underground; Hong Kong’s stations dwarf it by comparison. Each station has a number of exits all over the area where the stop is, which is great as you can pretty much stay inside to get to where you are going. On the down side, there are a ton of steps between the various levels and entrances and exits, making it rather difficult to navigate with luggage. Getting from the street on to a train platform could take up to 10-15 minutes it seemed, depending on which entrance you use and how many different levels of escalators you have to use to get there. There were a number of trips on the MTR where I think I walked farther to find my way to/from the trains than I would have if I’d just walked where I was going, though I’m sure that wasn’t really the case.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.