Dim Sum Dialogues: The MTR

I love public transport. For me, it’s one of the factors that define whether a city is good or great…and after living in Los Angeles for 4 years, I’ve been overdue to live in a city with great transportation. I’ve navigated the underground systems of most of the major U.S cities, as well as London, Barcelona, & Paris – but none of them are as efficient or well-maintained as Hong Kong’s MTR.

The initial proposal for the MTR system began with four rail lines in 1967, with the first line opening in 1979. It has since expanded to 82 stations served by 10 rapid transit lines and 68 stations on 11 light rail lines – carrying an estimated 2.2 million passengers every day.

Each MTR station has multiple street exits that are easily marked alphabetically, with accompanying numbers for exits that are near each other. For instance, if two exits share the same street or provide two stairwells to opposite sides of a street, they are paired as A1 & A2. This is extremely useful when trying to arrange a meeting point with someone in the city…simply name the station and the exit and there’s no confusion on where to be.

Since 2000, the MTR corporation has begun to offer retail space for small shops in most stations. So it’s typical to find stores like 7-11, Circle K, and Mrs. Fields Cookies in every major station, with larger stations offering full fledged clothing stores or health and beauty shops. Small MTR signs encourage people in transit to “pause, take a short break” in the shops – something that might be inconceivable amidst the bustling Monday-Friday rush hour from 6-7pm.

Glass walls with sliding doors separate the platforms from the railways, with overhead signs that display when the next train will arrive. The trains are fairly standard, with each car seamlessly linked to the next – allowing passengers to move freely to less crowded cars.

PSP’s and iPhone’s are the standard gadgets found in the hands of at least 60% of the passengers on any given day. Verbal announcements are made before every stop in Cantonese, Mandarin and English, respectively – and regularly remind passengers to refrain from eating or drinking in the trains or in the stations (which, to my surprise is strictly obeyed). LED signs above each door map the train’s progress on the line, and indicate which side of the train the doors will open on at the next stop. It’s smooth, fast, and cheap – the most you’ll end up paying from one end of the city to the other is the equivalent of $2 USD.

After about a month of riding the MTR, two facts dawned on me: first, there are no bathrooms to be found in any of the stations. This is probably the biggest drawback of the system – but with abundance of McDonald’s on Hong Kong’s streets, finding a nearby toilet is never really a problem. The second revelation was that some of the biggest shopping destinations are conveniently situated directly on top of a few of the major MTR stations.

After a couple of online searches, I learned that the MTR corporation is also one of the largest property developers in Hong Kong – collecting major profit from constructing shopping centers, office spaces, and residential buildings on the land above their stations…a perfect example of the sharp business sense that is prevalent in Hong Kong.

So if you’re headed to Hong Kong – rest assured that you’ll be able to find your way around very easily. If you’re planning on staying for more than a week, or will return frequently for business, don’t forget to pick up an Octopus card – the RFID system that allows you to load money onto a smart card for payment in supermarkets, fast-food restaurants, convenience stores, at parking meters and even vending machines. It’s genius, and just one more reason why I find the MTR to be one of the best rapid transit systems in the world.

The rest of the week I’ll be covering Hong Kong’s various modes of transport. Stay tuned to find out what makes the taxis here unique, and which public transport you can throw a party on…