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Speech by Commissioner for Transport at 12th International Conference on Mobility and Transport for Elderly and Disabled Persons (English only)

     Following is a speech by Mr Joseph Lai, the Commissioner for Transport, at the 12th International Conference on Mobility and Transport for Elderly and Disabled Persons (TRANSED 2010) today (June 2):

Benny [Mr Benny Cheung, Chairman, TRANSED International Steering Committee], Ernest [Dr Ernest Lee, the Chair of the Plenary Session], distinguished guests, delegates, ladies and gentlemen,

     I am honoured and delighted to be here today to speak at the plenary session of TRANSED 2010.  May I first of all extend a very warm welcome to friends and delegates from all over the world. Confucius saidĄG "How happy we are, to meet friends from far away!".  Indeed, for the organisers and myself, it is always a pleasure to meet and share experiences with people with the same vision and values as ours on the question of accessible transport, the more so as most of you have travelled from afar to Hong Kong.

     I will begin with the institutional framework in Hong Kong, the "Transport for All" vision and how we have been progressing to attain this vision, then end with some observations on accessible public transport services and barrier free traffic facilities in Hong Kong.

     By way of background, Hong Kong is a small city with a land area of less than 1,100 square kilometres. Only 1/4 of the land is usable. We have a population of about seven million, including a disabled community of about 360,000 people.  With such a high population density, Hong Kong has arguably one of the world's best public transport systems comprising railways, buses, light buses, taxis and ferries.  Every day, our public transport system serves about 11.5 million passenger journeys, that makes up nearly 90% of daily passenger trips. In other words, nine out of 10 people take public transport in their daily travel.

     Our legislative regime and institutional arrangements provide us with the necessary framework to take forward our policy initiatives.  Our policy objectives are set out in the 1995 White Paper on Rehabilitation. That White Paper has a very meaningful title: "Equal Opportunities and Full Integration - A Better Tomorrow for All."  In gist, we aim to ensure two things -
(a) the development of a barrier-free physical environment; and
(b) the development of a transport system which allows people with a disability to move around at will in society and to facilitate their full participation and integration into the community.

     We seek to provide an accessible or barrier-free environment in which all users, irrespective of their physical disadvantages, can enter, use or access public transport services as and when they need to do so.

     In Hong Kong, as in many developed countries, we have a Disability Discrimination Ordinance which protects the rights of people with disabilities including accessibility to transport.  Under the ordinance, it is unlawful for a service provider to discriminate against people with disabilities by not providing them with goods, services or facilities.

     Other legislation also makes specific provisions for people with disabilities.  To quote two examples -
(a) the Road Traffic Ordinance contains provisions on the right of disabled persons to drive. It also contains various provisions on concessions (such as exemption of driving and vehicle licence fees, first registration tax of the vehicle, and on-street metered parking fee, etc.); and
(b) the Public Bus Services Ordinance empowers the Government to specify requirements and conditions for accessible facilities on franchised bus services.  

     Institutionally, the Labour and Welfare Bureau is responsible for the formulation of overall policy on rehabilitation and for coordinating the planning and implementation of all government departments and non-governmental organisations.  The Transport Department is one of the agencies involved in the policy formulation and provision of accessible public transport services. On a day-to-day basis, the department works closely with many other stakeholders including the Rehabilitation Advisory Committee, the Transport Advisory Committee, the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Legislative Council.  I see that some members of these committees and organisations are here today, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank them for their unfailing support for the work we do throughout these many years.

     In the past, there was no agreed strategy among stakeholders on how continuous improvement might be made on the notion of accessible transport.  We adopted a so-called demand responsive approach. Basically, it meant that we acted as and when an issue was raised or a request was made.  In 2002, after comprehensive review and consultation, we formulated the "Transport for All" vision.  With this vision, we strive to provide universal facilities to make our transport suitable for all kinds of people, including persons with disabilities, the elderly and any other person in need.  We adopt a strategic approach in planning and providing better accessible transport services for the community.

     To put this vision into reality, we developed the "5-Betters Strategy" which has subsequently been embedded into our work at all levels.  This strategy comprises five elements -  
(a) Better accessible transport services for all
(b) Better public transport infrastructure and facilities for all
(c) Better streets and pedestrian areas for all
(d) Better planning standards, guidelines and procedures
(e) Better partnership for actions and results

     Unlike the case in many other places, public transport operators in Hong Kong provide services on a commercial basis, without direct government subsidies. But, with a keen sense of corporate social responsibility, they too embrace the "Transport for All" vision.  Allow me to illustrate this with reference to two major public transport modes: railway and franchised bus services. Between them, their daily patronage account for about 70% of the total public transport passenger trips.

     Railway is the backbone of our public transport system. About 36% of the daily passenger trips is served by railway. In the past 10 years, the Mass Transit Railway Corporation Limited (MTRCL) has spent HK$635 million (i.e. about US$85 million) on improving the accessibility for persons with disabilities. A further HK$200 million (i.e. about US$26 million) has been committed for the next five years for the same purpose. The improvements made are remarkable.

     Some of you will have tried our railway system.  For those who have not, I strongly encourage you to do so in the coming few days.  You will find that there are a whole range of facilities to help passengers in need.  For instance, to better serve mobility impaired passengers, escalators, ramps, lifts, portable ramps, wheelchair aids, stair-lifts are provided.  To assist visually impaired passengers, braille maps are provided at stations and there are also tactile guide path systems inside the concourses and on the platforms.  Interactive voice instructions and keypad input devices are installed at ticket vending machines.  Audible devices on Octopus card processors are installed at dedicated exit gates to tell the remaining value of the Octopus cards.  The Octopus card is a stored-value contactless card allowing commuters to travel across all major public transport modes.  This single card fare payment method makes travelling more convenient for all passengers.  All these facilities are purposely designed to help passengers in need to ride on the railway system.

     I will be the first to admit that, in an ideal world, more perhaps could be done. But it also has to be said that sometimes there are limits on how much more could be done in respect of some existing railway systems.  Some stations constructed in earlier years have limited scope for retrofitting of facilities because of physical constraints and the need to cater for smooth passenger flow.  Despite these difficulties, MTRCL has been actively exploring ways to put in more resources to improve accessibility wherever practicable.  You are all experts in this field and any advice and insight you would give us on how to further improve the accessibility of the railway system will be most gratefully appreciated.

     Franchised bus accounts for about 34% of the daily public transport passenger trips.  As at the end of last year, about 2,970 franchised buses are equipped with low floor and ramps, representing just over half of the total bus fleet. This compares with a level of 27% in 2003.  These low floor franchised buses are currently deployed to about 570 bus routes, representing about 63% of the total bus routes.  We seek advice from disabled groups to work out how best to distribute these low floor buses on the bus network.  Looking ahead, all the five franchised bus companies have agreed that all new buses purchased will be wheelchair accessible.  We shall be monitoring the bus replacement programme to ensure that this will indeed be done.

     Hong Kong's bus network is comprehensive.  To help passengers in need, the franchised bus operators have installed bus stop announcement systems on board buses where feasible.  Currently, about 73% of the franchised buses are installed with such a system.  If everything goes smoothly as planned, we may expect all franchised buses to be installed with such a system within the next year or two.  Franchised bus operators have also provided larger destination plates, as well as high colour contrast and textured handrail systems to better serve passengers with low vision.

     Rehabus services were introduced in 1978 to provide transport service to disabled persons who cannot drive themselves and have difficulty in using public transport services.  The Government provides a subvention to the Hong Kong Society for Rehabilitation to operate the service.  There are mainly three types of Rehabus services, namely (a) scheduled routes; (b) dial-a-ride services and (c) feeder services.  The services have expanded continuously.  In the past five years, the number of vehicles increased from 87 to 115.  The number of passengers carried also increased by about 24%, from about 550,000 to 680,000. Four more vehicles will be added to the service this year, making a total bus fleet of 119.  We will continue to monitor the demand closely and work on possible measures to further improve the services in the years to come.

     If I could now move on very quickly to the other four elements of our "5-Betters Strategy".

     We are committed to providing ramps, drop kerbs, tactile warning strips, tactile guide paths, and other barrier-free facilities at new public transport interchanges and roads.  Moreover, we are retrofitting transport infrastructures with barrier-free facilities, subject to resources and technical feasibility.  Tactile guide paths are also provided to connect rehabilitation centres and hospitals with rail stations and public transport interchanges.  We also provide drop kerbs and tactile warning strips at all road crossings and we also have had electronic audible traffic signal units as a standard facility at new signalised crossings since 1994.

     Since the year 2000, all new footbridges and subways managed by the Government must be provided with either ramps or lifts.  For existing footbridges and subways, the Highways Department has an on-going programme to study and retrofit ramps and/or lifts where technically feasible and where user demand justifies it.  In the past three years, retrofitting works for lifts at 17 footbridges were completed.

     Planning standards and guidelines give concrete expression to policy and legislative intent.  It is essential to ensure that the requirements of the users are duly considered in the early design and planning stages.  In consultation with users, we developed the "Transport Planning and Design Manual" to provide guidelines for accessible facilities along barrier-free routes.  We also update the manual regularly.

     Knowledge on the need and concerns of our customers are important.  We value greatly our communication with organisations representing the disabled, and we put much effort in establishing and maintaining the partnership channels.  We have a working group drawing together representatives of the disabled, public transport operators and relevant government departments.  The working group provides a useful forum to exchange views and discuss issues of mutual concern.  It also takes the lead in establishing common standards and guidelines on the provision and modifications of facilities to all public transport operators.   

     In working on this speech, I have been reminded of another quote by Confucius: "How pleasurable we are, to constantly review and practise what we have learnt."  My colleagues and I had been revisiting what we did and learnt in the past years on accessible transport and barrier- free transport infrastructures.  I would like to share with you some observations we arrived at -
- We have the will and the vision:  The various elements which I have described - policy, legislation, institutional arrangements, vision, strategies, etc - are all vital components in promoting real progress.
- We have strategy and targets:  A strategic and systematic approach with clear targets for completion are required and indeed essential to achieve large-scale, sustainable improvement.  An ongoing strategic programme has helped us sharpen our focus and deliver more.  
- We have standards and guidelines:  Clear standards and guidelines are stated in our "Transport Planning and Design Manual".  I am aware that our colleagues in the Architectural Services Department and Building Department also have design manuals for barrier-free access to buildings.  With these manuals, accessible transport services and barrier-free facilities can be planned properly from the outset, saving the need to retrofit, which is often more difficult and less effective.
- We treasure the partnership:  Communication with internal and external stakeholders is vital. Communication and partnership enable us to be more responsive to needs and aspirations and motivate us to do better.  We need better coordination among stakeholders and within the Government.  We need to team up for excellence.

     As we enter the second decade of the century, I venture to say that we are progressing on the right track.  We are closer to attaining "Transport for all".  However, we are not complacent.  We understand only too well that there are difficulties ahead, and that much work remains to be explored and done by all parties alike.  My intuition is that new technologies may be our future. I sincerely hope that technological advance will help us figure out, in the not-so-distant future, new initiatives at affordable prices to further improve the accessibility, orientation and safety of the disabled and the elderly in transport.  I sincerely hope that we can have more state-of-the-art concepts and products such as those we are seeing in this conference and exhibition.

     In closing, may I assure you that we will stand firm in our commitment to strive for an accessible transport system and barrier-free infrastructure for the whole community.  And we will back up this commitment with action.  I wish you all a fruitful discussion over the next few days.  And for those of you who are from overseas, I wish you an enjoyable stay in Hong Kong and a safe journey home.

Ends/Wednesday, June 2, 2010
Issued at HKT 15:30


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