More Pedestrian Streets, Less Pollution

Pedestrian street

Hong Kong’s government has finally decided that sacrificing its air quality in favour of cars, buses and trucks isn’t such a good thing after all. Yesterday, in a somewhat surprising departure from its reluctance to make big plans, the government pledged to fight roadside air pollution by revamping the city’s vast bus network, planting more trees, expanding bicycle infrastructure, creating “low-emission zones” in the city’s most congested areas and permanently pedestrianizing nearly two dozen streets. Emission standards would also be tightened for boats and private vehicles.

While details on many aspects of the plan have yet to be confirmed — and of course it’s still just a proposal, with no guarantee that any of it will be actually put into place — it has the potential to drastically improve the quality of life in Hong Kong’s central areas. In Mongkok, the network of pedestrian streets already in place would be expanded, while vehicles that do not meet the highest European emission standards, known as Euro IV, would be banned from the entire neighbourhood. Vehicular access outside the pedestrian areas would also be limited.

Central and Causeway Bay would see a similar expansion of pedestrian streets. Somewhat surprisingly, the plan calls for the pedestrianization of Staunton and Elgin in Soho, something long advocated by the area’s business owners but rejected by the government.

A few other aspects mentioned, but not given much detail, include the construction of cycling networks around transportation hubs and the rationalization of the bus network. The latter is particularly promising because Hong Kong’s bus system currently consists of hundreds of overlapping point-to-point bus routes, which creates tremendous congestion (traffic jams on streets like Nathan Road often consist entirely of buses) and inefficiencies. Rationalization might lead to a reduction of frequency on some lines, but it would also speed up service and reduce the intolerable bus exhaust that plagues busy roads.

There are problems with the plan, of course. It has no fixed timeline, which could allow the government to shirk responsibility by delaying everything indefinitely. It’s also a bit perplexing as to why the target emission standards are Euro IV when Europe will introduce the even more stringent Euro V standards later this year. Why move just one rung up the ladder when it would be just as easy to jump straight up to the top?

There’s also the matter of dealing with obstinate lobby groups. Van drivers are outraged by the plan because it would force them to replace their vehicles. The director of a retail industry association, meanwhile, worries that pedestrianization will hurt business — despite the fact that existing pedestrianization schemes have actually boosted the fortunes of retail districts.

The media could also be a problem. “Air-quality proposals ‘bad for business'” is what headlines the South China Morning Post’s coverage of the plan, which consists of a graphic and just two short articles, the more substantial of which looks at the concerns of van drivers and the retail industry. That’s a perfectly legitimate angle, of course, but what’s missing is an in-depth take on all of the implications of the proposals. Instead we get a pithy chart that lists all of the proposed measures, their cost and “the potential impact,” which according to the SCMP is not cleaner air or better health, but “higher costs for drivers,” a “longer wait for buses” and “traffic congestion” caused by car-free zones. Hopefully we’ll see some good follow-ups, but given the SCMP’s track record on that, I’m not hopeful.

Hong Kong air pollution measures

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Thursday July 23 2009at 11:07 pm , filed under Asia Pacific, Environment, Politics, Public Space, Transportation and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Comments are closed.