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Asian city public transport guide


Singapore, Hong Kong, Taipei and Tokyo among top rail transit systems in Asia.

Published on Jun 23, 2010

By Joel Quenby

Urban Southeast Asia is expanding rapidly. However, some of the region’s centers—like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh—still lack mass urban transportation. Others are more up to speed with developing state-of-the-art systems.

Bangkok added a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system to its BTS light railway and MRT subway in May 2010. Meanwhile, Jakarta’s administration is pursuing a Macro Transportation Plan, featuring new subway, high-speed “busway” and monorail systems. Upping the ante, China is constructing the world’s largest high-speed rail network, shooting for two-day journey times between London and Beijing.

Rising gas prices and environmental concerns are demanding modifications to travel on a global scale. In late 2009, Southeast Asia’s transport ministers endorsed an action plan for eco-sustainable transport improvements to implement by 2014. Changes to the way we travel are afoot.

Southeast Asia can, however, boast several outstanding rapid urban transit services. Here are T+L’s picks.


Hong Kong Oyster Card
Hong Kong's Oyster Card By corndogbob (via Flickr Creative Commons License)

Mass transit accounts for 90 percent of all travel in Hong Kong. And seven million daily commuters use the 175-kilometer Mass Transit Railway (MTR) network, also known as the Hong Kong Subway. “Sleek, pristine and always on time,” said Lonely Planet—with the disclaimer that, “it is also rather soulless.” However, modernity has its advantages.

Among them is the 3G network coverage on the MTR allowing commuters to make video calls or watch online streams, even in underground tunnels. The transit system’s pioneering refillable Octopus Card, meanwhile, gets users discounted trip fares—and also pays for parking meters, fast food, and anything from a convenience store. Launched ahead of its time in 1997, it is now the most widely used electronic payment method on the island. That’s one octopus with seriously impressive reach.


Singapore MRT
By William Cho (via Flickr Creative Commons License)

Often cited as a case study in sustainable and successful urban transport development, Singapore applied characteristic efficiency to the construction of its MRT system. Its general cleanliness and orderliness are impressive—even more so considering the network’s age. At more than 20 years old, Singapore MRT is Southeast Asia’s second oldest Metro (after Manila’s LRT). Regular facelifts, featuring intricate landscaping, flowering orchids, tropical palms and shrubs keep stations in shape. Signs in the ticket concourse indicate no smoking, eating or drinking and, seemingly, hedgehogs. The latter actually applies to durian—the stinky, spiky fruit that’s pungent enough to clear multiple carriages. Singapore’s ez-link card covers MRT fares as well as trips on the city–state’s Light Rail Transit (LRT) and public buses.


Taipei MRT
By Pedro Angelina (via Flickr Creative Commons License)

Constructed at a cost of US$31.8 billion, Taiwan’s subway system is one of the most expensive on the planet. However, an international body also ranked it best in the world for safety, reliability and quality four years running (2004–2007), so the money seems well spent. Stations are air-conditioned and have LED schedule displays, along with Mandarin, Taiwanese, Hakka and English announcements and multilingual wall maps.

While Taipei Metro’s high level of cleanliness was achieved by forbidding the usual eating, smoking and gum-chewing, its users must be especially compliant. They rated the system at 95.5 percent for overall tidiness. All this, and the trains have an outstanding record for being on time, too.


Tokyo Metro

Tram-packed: Tokyo Metro is the second most used subway in the world

Rail being the primary mode of transportation in Tokyo, the city has two subway systems. The more extensive Tokyo Metro still manages to be the second-most-used subway in the world (after the Moscow Metro). Even averaging more than six million passengers a day, everything is spotless—a tribute to the local culture’s love of cleanliness (it also prizes punctuality, always handy for a rail system).

The Metro’s carriages offer heated seats, as well as a computerized messaging system giving journey updates and announcements in Japanese and English. The latter is part of extensive efforts to make the subway system accessible to non-Japanese speakers, including color-coded lines, regular English signposting, and Braille located by railings. However, at rush hour, rail workers will literally stuff you into a car, no matter how packed. Be prepared to get squished, along with everyone else.

Honorable mention:
In January 2010, India’s BRTS Ahmedabad won the Sustainable Transport Award, which is run by a panel of 15 international organizations (such as the United Nations Centre for Regional Development). With 35,000 daily commuters, the city’s residents embraced their new transport system (perhaps assisted by a local initiative: car-free days). Stations feature a passive solar design that cools them inexpensively. The system incorporates quality pedestrian facilities in some corridors, as well as bicycle lanes.


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