Hong Kong’s public transit system has long been regarded as one of the most efficient in the world, so it’s no surprise that a ride on the famed tram, MTR or Star Ferry is a must on every traveler’s bucket list.
But with an average of roughly 12.9 million passenger trips per month pre-pandemic, these modes of transit were extremely crowded.
Inspired by Covid-19 concerns, Hong Kong-based designers have set to work reimagining the city’s most iconic modes of transportation, including its historic trams and the ever-popular ferries, to see what public transit could potentially look like in a post-pandemic world.
“Usually, good design comes from limitations. So in a way, this period has been really good for design – not necessarily for business, but certainly for the imagination,” Andrea Ponti, founder of Ponti Design Studio, tells CNN Travel.
“During and after the pandemic, I think designers will propose many new, different ways to use public spaces and interact with the environment.”
All aboard the ‘Island’ tram
Ever since the first track from Causeway to Kennedy Town debuted 115 years ago, the tram’s graceful silhouette has been a fixture on Hong Kong island. And Hong Kong’s slow-paced, jam-packed tram never fails to deliver an unforgettable experience.
From the top floor of these double-decker tramcars, travelers can soak up the street life, neighborhood after neighborhood – seafood drying by the roadside, hawkers skewing siu mai dumplings and tofu, glowing neon signs and crowds flowing across intersections like schools of fish.
This legacy made it all the more challenging for Ponti, an Italian based in Hong Kong, to update such an iconic look that has stood the test of time so far.
The result? The Island, a new tram concept that incorporates physical distancing measures and sustainable elements while staying true to what makes the Hong Kong tram such a treasure.
“When things started to slow down in February and March due to Covid, the idea of combining the tram with social distancing just came naturally to us,” says Ponti, the lead designer behind the concept.
“Riding the tram is an experience. People don’t do it because it is efficient, but because it is a nice way to slow down, connect with the neighborhood.
“We wanted to come up with something new, different, interesting, innovative but, at the same time, we had to be careful not to touch what people really love about the tram.”
Thankfully, he says, the response has been positive so far. “We have gotten thousands of likes and comments on social media – and only a few complaints.”
The warm reception owes to Ponti’s care in retaining notable characteristics, such as the long, rectangular shape, wooden floors and big windows.
“The inspiration for the rounded front came from the famous buildings [called tong lau] that you can find in Causeway Bay or Kowloon – these buildings often have beautiful rounded corners and windows,” says Ponti.
When updating the tram’s top floor, Ponti says it felt essential to incorporate panoramic windows: “We wanted to create a connection with the environment. So even the idea of this upper floor allows a really wide view, especially at night.”
To ensure the tram concept addressed hygiene and distancing measures, Ponti incorporated touchless entry and exit, driverless technology and a new seating arrangement.
Circular seating pods, from which the ‘Island’ tram takes its name, replace tight rowed seating while a long, standing bar enables passengers to enjoy the urban landscape while keeping their distance.
“Much of the public transportation in Hong Kong has very similar seat layouts – just rows and rows. We wanted to explore something completely different, where people sit on a circular bench or seat,” says Ponti.
“The idea is that you’re facing outwards, so you’re always looking outside and you don’t need to be in direct contact with other people. In these uncertain times, when physical connection is not possible, we wanted to create a connection between the rider and the city. So that is why we created this wide-open layout that feels minimalist and simple, functional yet emotional.”
Sea of new opportunities
Michael Young, a British industrial designer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than 14 years, loves being in a city where he feels surrounded by water.
Known for its rich history of fishing, shipping and island living, Hong Kong has been deeply connected with Victoria Harbour and the surrounding South China Sea throughout its history.
In this decidedly marine environment, however, the commuter boats are long overdue for an upgrade, says Young.
“I think the boats in Hong Kong are beautiful, but they can be a little bit medieval,” notes Young, who runs an eponymous design studio.
“I wanted to create a boat design that would appeal to a new generation, something that feels fresh and streamlined.”
Inspired by more eco-friendly ferries in the United States, Young came up with an idea for the OseaD1: a small yet agile commuter boat that would operate much like a taxi.
The innovative concept answers the call for physical distance, while also adding modern ingredients such as driverless technology, a quieter electric propulsion engine and a recycled polyethylene and steel exterior.
“I like the idea that people can social distance by sitting around the outside of the ferry – this layout also allows for wheelchair access, too.”
It’s a stark contrast to the dense, parallel row configurations on most commuter ferries in Hong Kong, though the designs bear a resemblance to the more local kaito and sampan boats that buzz around far-flung islands.
“I wanted to give it more of a sort of a living room experience. Since passengers are sitting around the edges, they can look opposite, chat with friends or just sit and enjoy the view.”
Since the layout ensures 360-degree access to seats, passengers don’t have to get too close to anyone to sit down, he says.
Physical distancing was just one part of Young’s inspiration.
In a post-Covid world, he imagines these conceptual ferries as a link between stressed-out residents and the city’s peaceful, untouched natural corners.
“In Hong Kong, we’re surrounded by water every day. There are so many outlying islands and beautiful places on Lamma, Lantau and Peng Chau islands that I wish we could more easily access – many are just too remote to reach without a boat.
“If these areas were easier to access, I think people would love to get out of the city more and enjoy the countryside. It really is a treasure.”