It is time to talk about the MTR.
The MTR—the Mass Transit Railway—is one of the unequivocally magnificent things about Hong Kong. We had heard a lot about it before we got here (all good things), and figured that some of it was bluster. We’ve been on our share of public transportation, and while some is better than others in certain categories, there is rarely a clear best-in-show. The DC Metro is infinitely cleaner than Chicago’s or New York’s, for example, but it’s also quite expensive relative to the distance traveled.
But the MTR is whooo-boy nice. (Environmental Graffiti thinks it’s #1, literally.)
Here are some of the things the MTR is.
Clean. Oh, it is clean. Like the DC Metro, food and drink are prohibited in the paid areas, and they take this seriously. I once bought a Snickers bar on the way out of a station and started to unwrap it as I was approaching the turnstiles. I was reprimanded (though fortunately not subjected to the HK$2000 fine). We have seen someone eating or drinking on the MTR once. Some teenager was eating some kind of snack out of a bag, and the looks of horror this elicited from other passengers would have made you think he was engaged in something truly awful, like ritual murder or reading Ayn Rand.
But seriously, look at this train car. Practically spotless. This is all the more impressive given that the trains are not swept out or cleaned at the end of every run. Why? Because they leave the station again three minutes later.
Which leads us to another thing the MTR is: incredibly frequent and incredibly reliable. I can think of maybe five times that we’ve had to wait more than three minutes for a train. Unlike Chicago, where the train operators actually pretend that people will believe them when they say “There’s a train right behind this one. Please don’t crowd, we have an immediate follower” (all lies), in Hong Kong there really is another train coming, and probably in two minutes.
Oddly, you still see people rush for the train even as the “doors closing” chime is sounding. Dude, there will be another one in two minutes.
The reason for this efficiency, of course, is that the MTR moves a lot of people. For comparison: Chicago had 221.6 million riders in 2011. The MTR had 125.8 million riders… in January 2013 alone. Yes, you read that right. It moves about 7 million people a day.
That’s why on most days it is apt to look a bit more like this.
The number of people in the MTR stations really brings into sharp focus a peculiar aspect of walking around Hong Kong. Much of the MTR is deep under ground, so entering and exiting usually means riding several escalators. The escalators, of course, are accompanied by staircases in case the escalators break, or if someone would prefer to take the stairs.
Here’s the thing: no one prefers to take the stairs. There can be a long line to get on an escalator—and when a crowded train has just emptied into a station, there is apt to be a looong line—but everyone will just shuffle along for a full minute, patiently waiting to get on the escalator, while the staircase remains completely empty.
I, of course, have photographic evidence. Here’s the line for the escalator heading down to the trains at Kowloon Tong. This isn’t even that busy.
There’s a staircase just beyond where these people are queued up. After I took the photo above, I walked twenty feet and took this one.
Here’s a nice side-by-side shot for comparison, showing upward-heading riders.
It’s an aspect of Hong Kong I really don’t get. Everyone is very busy and has places to be, but they’d rather wait forever for the escalator than walk up the stairs. Curious.
* – * – * – * – *
On our next episode of MTR talk: huge stations! The “quiet car”! Loveliness!