Hong Kong Chokes as Mercedes Clog City Streets: Chart of the Day

Surging numbers of private cars bought by Hong Kong’s elite are jamming the city’s streets and hampering efforts to cut pollution levels at more than three times the World Health Organization’s recommended limit.

The CHART OF THE DAY shows the number of registered private vehicles reached about 516,000 last year, a 35 percent jump over the past decade. That compares with the 11 percent increase in all other vehicles, including buses, trucks and taxis, which totaled 231,000, according to government data. The lower panel shows the annual average concentration of nitrogen dioxide in the Central district at street level was a record 126 micrograms per cubic meter in 2013, data by the Clear Air Network show.

Auto sales climbed as rising home prices minted millionaires. Mercedes-Benz’s E-Class, which starts at HK$497,500 ($64,000), was the best-selling car model in 2012, said Namrita Chow, an IHS Automotive analyst. Despite having the world’s third-most vehicles per kilometer of road, according to the World Bank, the Transport Department has no plans to follow Singapore and London with congestion charging or sales quotas.

“Hong Kong is doing nothing while other countries move ahead” with measures to tackle congestion, said Hung Wing-tat, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. “If the government doesn’t do anything, eventually there will be gridlock.”

Poor roadside air quality presents the biggest daily health threat to the city’s 7.2 million people, according to the government’s clean-air plan published last year. More new cars, though equipped with technologies to cut emissions, cause dirtier commercial vehicles to spend more time traveling and spewing pollutants, the report said. Nitrogen dioxide, mostly formed from vehicles in roadside areas, has been linked to damaged lung function in children and asthma attacks.

Hong Kong had half the number of cars per 1,000 people as Singapore in 2010 and about an eighth the amount in the U.K, according the most recent World Bank data. Hong Kong’s limited land, a well-developed public transport system and taxes are disincentives for car ownership, Transport Department spokeswoman Josephine Wong said in an e-mailed reply to queries. Mercedes-Benz Hong Kong Ltd. didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.