Via Howard Winn Reports

Illegal parking in the urban areas is getting worse. The government engages in public hand-wringing over traffic congestion and illegal parking yet takes little serious action to combat it. The recent announcement that it intends to increase the amount of a fixed penalty ticket is unlikely to deter illegal parkers because, as many have pointed out, enforcement by the police and traffic wardens is weak.

The government is now talking again about introducing Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) as a means of easing traffic congestion. But it has already indicated that this won’t be introduced (if at all) until sometime after 2017 when the delayed Wanchai By-pass opens. The government was urged in the Transport Advisory Council’s Report on Study of Road Traffic Congestions in Hong Kong last December, “…to engage the public as soon as possible for the planning of an ERP scheme.” One year later the government announces a public consultation. If there is a need for urgent action, the government appears oblivious to it.

Illegally parked cars in Central. Photo: HKFP.

The Transport Advisory Council (TAC) report notes, “Although there was an increase of about 98% in the number of fixed penalty tickets issued for congestion-related offences over the past 10 years, there is a general perception in the community that enforcement against congestion related offences is not stringent enough.” While it notes that there may be other demands on police time it, “urges the police to consider how enforcement against congestion-related offences could be further strengthened.”

Police officers jotting down the licence plate of a car in Central. File

Senior police officers have said privately that in many cases police officers do not consider it their job to ticket illegally parked cars, even though they all carry tickets. Indeed senior officers have said privately that they are embarrassed by the way police constables (PCs) walk past rows of illegally parked cars without appearing to notice. He says he has told PCs under his command, “If they [members of the public] see you ignoring something that is blatantly against the law then they are encouraged to do other things. Basically if they have seen you walking past something which is obviously an offence and you have done nothing about it – they just think the police are rubbish.”

This view is clearly at odds with the Selective Traffic Enforcement Policy (STEP) which the police have employed since 1993. This aims to maintain traffic flow and road safety, while at the same time reducing fatal and serious accidents; deterring drink and drug driving, speeding and illegal road racing; and promoting safe cycling. There are four levels of traffic enforcement in STEP ranging from arrest to summons, fixed penalty tickets and verbal warnings. Police are also able to “exercise their discretion” when the offender is aged under 16 or over 60; the offence is of a trivial nature; the offender is remorseful and has no intention to commit the offence; and there is no aggrieved party and no harm done to any person or property. If there is no hazard or obstruction to traffic, drivers will be allowed to drive away and there will only be “enforcement” if they don’t.

Illegal parking in Central. Photo: HKFP.

But apparently, enforcement action will be taken against any non-compliance to the road signs set up by the Transport Department. This may be the policy but a walk around Central or Causeway Bay indicates it is not being implemented. Senior police officers say there is no policy not to confront illegal parkers, but rather that “police officers don’t see it as part of their core duties. They tend to leave it to traffic wardens.”

Indeed some senior police officers say there shouldn’t be a selective traffic enforcement policy. Rather it should be left up to individual police constables to issue tickets depending on their assessment of the circumstances. Having “levels of enforcement” creates confusion and discourages PCs from taking action. The TAC report notes with approval that, “Frontline police officers have been directed that they may now take enforcement action against drivers causing obstruction by double parking, without the need to issue a verbal warning even if the driver is at the wheel.” This directive has been in force for more than year but has made no discernible difference to the problem.

Some of the illegally parked “chauffeur driven 7-seaters” in Central. Photo: HKFP.

There have been any number of suggestions over the years for dealing with illegal parking. In some cities regulating car parking is outsourced and is a profitable business. The more tickets issued, the more money the company makes. The government could step up enforcement by requiring habitual illegal parkers to stop using their cars for a period. Modern technology could be employed to ticket cars more efficiently and so on.

But the root of the problem is that there is no political will to deal with the chauffeur driven 7-seaters. Increased regulation and penalties will make no difference if there is no enforcement. It suits the elite of which senior civil servants and government officials are a part, not to do anything.

The current arrangements are clearly not working and illegal parking obviously makes traffic congestion worse and affects road safety. The police are obviously reluctant to take this on since they don’t see it as their main job. Meanwhile they are criticised for condoning low level law breaking. If the government was to outsource this there would be no shortage of takers. But for the moment, like so many other issues in Hong Kong such as the small house policy, building management issues, waste management, it is put in the too hard basket and left for other government officials to handle or ignore at some remote time in the future.

Howard Winn

Howard Winn has been a journalist for more than 25 years working mostly in Asia. He was until recently Lai See columnist for the South China Morning Post, a column that focused on the lighter side of business and more. He was previously Deputy Editor and Business Editor of the Hong Kong Standard. His work has been published in the Far Eastern Economic Review, the Wall Street Journal, and the International Herald Tribune. His latest work can be found at