Hong Kong is a very compact city, with an excellent system of public transportation, so driving is more of a vanity than a necessity. Moreover, Hong Kong is densely populated, so the parking is very expensive, and the traffic jam, though nothing as bad as Bangkok, is still rather frustrating.
You are only recommended to buy a car if you like to do outdoor sports that involves moving huge equipments around, such as biking, or if you have lots of kids you need to shuffle from one place to another with a huge trail of baby necessities. If you are single, childless, and enjoy an odd drink or two, you are definitely better off taking the public transportation.
Kowloon is almost as compact as Hong Kong, and certainly very densely populated as well, so you can probably rely on the terrific transportation network instead of driving. Even if you live in houses in Fairview Park or Palm Springs, they have regular shuttle buses taking you to all sorts of civilised areas, so honestly driving isn’t a must.
Wanna know what I think about Hong Kong's transport system? Read the rest of the article at Expat Arrivals!
Public Transport System
Hong Kong is a very compact city with a super efficient transport system. Here is a summary of a few that you will encounter daily:
Mass Transit Railways
The most likely mode of transit for almost anyone in Hong Kong would be the MTR, which is Hong Kong’s subway, and is extremely efficient compared to the tube in London, as well as extremely clean compared to the subway in New York. Not to mention, cell phone reception is available, and you have the privilege of avoiding the crush of the street level congestion above.
It runs all over Hong Kong, from the island all the way across to the airport, and up to the borders of China and over. That said, there are certain parts of the region that the MTR doesn’t reach, in which case expats will need to utilize alternative methods of public transportation.
To use the MTR, all you need to do is buy an Octopus card, which is a charge card you can use for MTR, buses, minibuses, grocery shopping, even making donations and opening the door to your building. The costs are relatively cheap, and you can even download an app that calculates the time it takes to get from A to B.
The cost is calculated from point to point, roughly by distance. You can check the specific costs here, and though there are unlimited ride cards for tourists, those are actually quite pricey and won’t make such a good deal if you are only taking it to and from work. If you need to take the airport express, then make sure you grab the tickets in advance at any tour operating shops, which would give a whopping 30% off the original costs if you were to get it at the stations.
When you are riding the MTR, you have to bear in mind that Hong Kongers are perpetually in a hurry, so make sure you shuffle along quickly, especially at busy interchanging stations like Admiralty or Mong Kok, to avoid getting trampled on or pushed over. Also, if you are a man, keep your hands to yourself to avoid any embarrassment, since the carts can be literally sardine packed during rush hours. If you want to offer your seat to that poor granny who is wobbling about, make sure you hover well over your seat before the granny makes her way over, otherwise the keen eyed Mainlanders might just shove past you and jump right into the seat. MTR, in any case, is pretty disabled friendly, so if need be, there is always assistance available.
The ferry is an essential mode of transit for those expats living in Discovery Bay, Lamma Island, Park Island, or any other outlying islands that are favoured by foreigners. For the most part, the schedule is simple, and easy to memorise. It connects the main Hong Kong Island to other Outlying Islands like Cheung Chau, Ping Chau, Lantau Island, and is in fact the only mode of transportation to those islands, if you don’t count the emergency ambulance helicopter service. Expats can use the Octopus Card to pay for the ferry, as well as other annual package deals. Prices are jacking up rather high recently, but should still be a double digit number.
Ferries are, of course, subject to Hong Kong’s extreme weather conditions, and service can ground to a halt in the event of a typhoon or a black rainstorm warning. In that case, your employer will ask you to leave for home early, or you can find a friend to stay with until the storm has died down. To check to see if the ferry is running, consult the Hong Kong weather observatory in advance so that you can make alternative arrangements.
The tram is only available in the Hong Kong island, and takes you from east to west of the island, as well as up the Peak. Expats should note that this is a very slow means of transport though, so unless you live in Sai Ying Pun or on May Road where the MTR doesn’t take you to, it is usually unlikely that you will travel on it in a daily basis. Again, the Octopus card also works for the tram, and it should be the cheapest means of traveling around the island other than mere walking.
In Hong Kong there are also buses that travel on the island or over to Kowloon, with most of the vehicles equipped with speakers and digital signboards telling you what the next stop is in Cantonese, English and Mandarin, just so you don’t miss your station. It is an especially popular mode of transit for people who don’t live on the MTR lines, such as on Hong Kong Island South, Sai Kung, or Hung Hom. Due to heavy traffic, it might take much longer than MTR though, which is why people generally take MTR if it is available. However, buses are usually less packed, so people tend to choose buses so that they could get a seat and have some eye shut before arriving at work.
The Octopus card can be used on buses, with costs slightly less than traveling by MTR since it takes a wee bit longer on bus due to unexpected traffic jams. There are also apps available to show the duration and stops for every bus route. Prices are in single or double digits, with the most expensive being the ride from Hong Kong island all the way over to the airport.
There is a huge variety of minibuses in Hong Kong, ranging from your green-top vehicles that travel on a fixed route to your red-top, sole proprietor vehicles. The major difference between buses and minibuses are that minibuses hold a fix number of passengers, usually 14 to 16, and they are all seated with the law requiring for them to fasten their seatbelts. For buses, however, they are usually double decker and hold lots more people, as well as allowing them to stand on the bottom deck. This mode of transit is essential for those that live in places like Sai Kung or Cyberport, where the MTR doesn’t reach. Minibuses are generally preferred over buses, because they don’t have to stop unless people want to get on or off, as oppose to buses which have to stop at every station.
That being said, this mode of transit is not without its challenges. First off, if you do need to take the minibuses, you’ll need to learn Cantonese. Disgruntled drivers are known to get cranky when foreigners don’t speak perfect Cantonese; which is a necessity since you have to shout out your stop to signal to the driver where you would like to get off. Furthermore, these vehicles are known to travel well over 100km/hour during night time, so if you need to go out after midnight, buckle up and pray. The green-top vehicles will accept the Octopus Card as payment, but the red-top minibuses will take cash only. The pricing calculations are rather mysterious, but the vague idea is the further it is, the more it would cost. The price is usually no higher than double digits.
Taking a taxi in Hong Kong is insanely cheap, in comparison to places like Tokyo or Edinburgh. Expats will soon realise that the English proficiency, or mapping skills, of each driver can vary tremendously. Taxis in Hong Kong accept cash only, and usually round up the $0.50 to the next Hong Kong dollar.
The green cabs are only for traveling within the New Territories, and the blue cabs are only for Outlying Islands, both with cheaper fares than the normal red cabs, so don’t flag them down if you need to travel out of Kowloon or Hong Kong. Taxis seem to be readily available, until it is raining or rush hour, at which point it seems impossible to flag one down, so you tend to need to be a bit more aggressive in catching one.
Driving a car in Hong Kong
As mentioned, buying a car in Hong Kong is not necessary. The region is small, and the cost of buying a car and the cost of parking are high. But then it is still a common mode of transit for expats, especially those that choose accommodation farther away from the city centre. If you do choose to be an automobile-owning foreigner, there are quite a few rules of the road that you should make yourself aware of before you pull out into traffic.
Driving tips for foreigners:
- In Hong Kong, they drive on the left side of the road.
- Hong Kong is very hilly, so prepare yourself for some steep terrain
- Learn to parallel park. Car parks are small, and on-street parking is mostly in parallel spaces
- If in a minor car accident, consider settling dispute outside of your insurance. Premiums are pricey, and people tend to solve situations themselves so they can get the no claims bonus. Still, it is always recommended to report to the police to avoid future litigations.
- Traffic at the Cross Harbour Tunnel is always appalling, get an Autotoll detector, which is a charge card for the tunnel, to speed up your commute.
- Hong Kongers are perpetually in a hurry, so if they don’t let you through, don’t get upsetted. Instead, wave to show you are in gratitude, and chances of them letting you through will be higher.
- Hong Kongers tend to tailgate (drive close to the car in front of them), so brake slowly rather than stopping quickly to avoid accidents.
- Be alert at all times; mainlander and local pedestrians seem to jump out from every direction.
Hong Kong is relatively safe for pedestrians in comparison to China, and people generally follow the rules, though they do act somewhat quicker than the traffic lights themselves. There are buttons on the poles so if you need to cross just press it and it will signal the lights to change.
Cycling on the road is acceptable, but try not to go on highways in the evenings because it is pretty dangerous. Outdoor escalators are available in some places like mid-levels for those who don’t fancy walking. There are lots of commotions going on around that area, crowded with tourists and film makers, so it might get a bit overwhelming.