The joys of public transport in Hong Kong

A few weeks ago, I was waiting for a bus. It was hot. The late spring sunshine beat down on me. Across the street, and upwind, unfortunately, a garbage truck unloaded dumpsters, unleashing waves of ripe odors. I sweated, and mouth-breathed, even more than usual, and was rapidly overcome by a sense of profound self-pity (Mrs Tall can confirm that this is a common Mr Tall state of mind). My bus was late, and here I stood in these completely unacceptable conditions. I, an American, a citizen of the Global Colossus currently bestride the world, the home of the free and the SUV -- how could this be, this waiting for a bus?

Well, eventually my bus came, and in its climate-controlled womb my faculty of reason and sense of proportion returned from their brief forays into megalomania. I acknowledged three facts:

  1. Hong Kong buses these days are really very comfortable.
  2. Hong Kong public transportation in general is very, very good.
  3. A few rough spots excepted, I like using it.

I like buses in particular. I will be happier when KMB finally retires the last of its non-airconditioned, roach-infested rolling wrecks, but on most routes these days you're likely to end up on a fairly plush air-conditioned double-decker. I enjoy, in an admittedly child-like way, sitting upstairs in one of these, and seeing Hong Kong roll by at the upper-floor level.

My enjoyment of riding buses runs deep. In my hometown, a little town in Iowa in the USA, the only buses around are bright yellow and carry schoolchildren from the farms into town. I was a 'town kid', so I only got to ride the bus on special occasions like field trips (and no, I know what you smartasses out there are thinking: just because Iowa's full of fields, we didn't take our 'field' trips to see them! We visited hog confinements.)

My mother also has -- dare I say it -- a kind of reverence for big transport. To engage it, however, she must wait for my hometown's annual 'Tulip Festival', a three-day celebration of flowers, wooden shoes, pea soup, and other accoutrements of nineteenth-century Dutch-American culture. It attracts a lot of people, many older, and many of whom arrive on Greyhounds and Trailways and assorted chartered buses. I remember Mom coming home from a day at the Festival and pronouncing, in solemn tones, 'They bused them in from all over today.'

After this kind of upbringing, how can I not like buses?

The MTR inspires less sentimental feelings. It's like a harsh but fair teacher: I respect it for what it gets done, but I don't really enjoy being in its presence. The MTR is punctual, efficient, clean and fast. It moves lots of people from point to point, but it isn't much fun. In its long underground stretches, you can't see where you're going, and it's almost always crowded, which is even less fun when you're busy being preoccupied with a SARS-like cough.

The best fun in Hong Kong public transport, however, is found on its more esoteric modes, i.e. the ferries and the minibuses. These must be left for later articles, though -- I've got a bus to catch.