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A tale of three Asian cities

Updated On: Sep 17, 2010
A recent six day-trip spanning Hong Kong, Shanghai and Bangkok left me pondering what makes a city a livable place? What makes a city buzz and people want to live there?
First, public transport is a critical issue.
A good public transport system has a tangible economic value - it helps make movement and interaction easier. There is also a social benefit in allowing different sectors and strata of society to mingle and access the city. Environmentally, public transport also trumps private vehicles that all too often clog up streets and highways across Asia.
For me, the speed and ease of getting to and from the airport often offers an initial assessment of the city's public transport system.
By this measure, Hong Kong is far ahead. Its airport train is so efficient and comfortable that even a highly paid banker I met on the plane uses it regularly, rather than taking the office limo.
Getting around Hong Kong island reinforces this impression. Taxis remain available at all times of day and night, at a reasonable price and in whatever weather.
In Central, if you decide to walk, connecting bridges and walkways allow for a quite seamlessly stroll from one building to another.
Bangkok is not in the same league but has shown marked progress. A train service has recently started, connecting the distant Suvarnabhumi Airport to the city. There are long flights up and down, which are not easy with luggage. But the journey from the airport takes just over an hour to downtown Siam Square.
Against the backdrop of Bangkok's notorious traffic jams, pedestrians using public transport are reaching their destinations quicker. Walkways link overhead SkyTrain platforms, creating a network of aerial corridors above the streets and crowded pavements, teaming with people walking in and out of buildings from deluxe Central department store at Chidlom to the sprawling MBK shopping mall.
Shanghai is perhaps the most spectacular of these three Asian cities but too many developments, especially in Pudong, aim for the sky and fail to connect to the street or to one another.
The one-off maglev train from the airport is faster than a Ferrari but does not connect well to the rest of the public transport system. Nor does it run at night. It is iconic but not in the best sense of that word.
What was iconic was the Bund, especially after a strong wind had blown away the smog. Shanghainese and visitors alike were out and about. Roof top bars and restaurants were abuzz. People sat and talked, admiring the lights that artfully showcased and contrasted the rich architectural heritage along the Puxi side against the brash skyscrapers lit up with neon advertisements across the river.
Hong Kong's harbour may be almost as beautiful, but pollution has become an everyday nuisance in the city, obscuring the view even from the tallest towers in Central. As Hong Kong competes against many Chinese cities for economic advantage and other cities across Asia for talent, a strategy to bring back blue skies could bolster the city's competitiveness.
Today, quality of life is a major pull factor and not just for Asian mega-cities.
Many Asian cities have passed the 3 million resident mark and face similar challenges. Each is likely to have its own approach, different policy solutions and adopt different technologies. But all are trying to deliver amenities that make life better not just for the elite but also the masses. Each is also likely to pay more attention to the environment and pollution these days than a decade ago.
And even as they continue to struggle, many have set the right direction and are reporting progress.
Many whom I met in the three cities praised Singapore as a forerunner of a livable city commending the island's clean air and clean streets. I nod and smile at such compliments.
Some have read of our newer challenges with overcrowded trains and downtown streets. One observer recounted his surprise at how traffic in our city had become worse. I nod and frown.
I did not admit that when I landed at Changi, it did not even occur to me to take the train into the city as I did in Hong Kong and Bangkok.
That Saturday, the taxi queue stretched maybe 60 people long. So I splurged on a limo taxi to save time.
Our city is, by several measures, still ahead. But others are trying to catch up.
They do not imitate but offer, in their own way, their own mix of attributes that make for a livable Asian city. This is a competition in which all can win.