September 22nd, 2010

Those Grey Metal Fences

Posted in Asia Pacific, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

Sidewalk fences at a typical corner in Sham Shui Po, Kowloon

Earlier this month, a pair of pedestrians tried to push their way through a crowd of people on Dundas Street, one of the most crowded streets in Hong Kong’s most crowded neighbourhood. One of them cast a withering glance on the grey metal fence that lined the sidewalk, preventing him from stepping into the road or crossing the street. “What a hassle,” he said to his friend. “That thing is such a pain.”

Every day, more than 200,000 pedestrians pass through the centre of Mongkok. At peak hours, the footpath on Dundas Street, between Sai Yeung Choi Street and the Tung Choi Street Ladies’ Market, becomes so crowded that many people choose to dodge cars and minibuses instead of walking on the packed sidewalk.

In June, the Highways Department hoped to put a stop to that unruly behaviour by installing a long, impermeable fence along the entire length of the sidewalk. But the barrier seems to have had the opposite of its intended effect. On a recent Thursday evening, hundreds of people could be seen walking in the roadway, outside the fence. At one point, there were more pedestrians in the street than on the sidewalk.

“The fence has been bad for business because people can’t easily cross the street to get here,” said the owner of a dispensary located halfway down the block. He said he had not been consulted before the fence was installed. “When the government wants to do something, it just does it,” he said.

Nearby, a man was leaning against the fence while browsing Facebook on his iPhone. “The only reason it’s here is so the government can cover its ass if there’s an accident,” he said.

Last year, the government spent HK$11 million on new sidewalk railings around Hong Kong, adding to the 730 kilometres of railings that already exist. The fences are are meant to prevent conflict between vehicles and pedestrians, but urban design experts say they turn sidewalks into obstacle courses without doing enough to keep pedestrians safe from traffic.

“For a long time now, Hong Kong has been planned for vehicles, not pedestrians,” said Pong Yuen-yee, a former vice-president of the Hong Kong Institute of Planners. “The priority is for vehicular traffic to move smoothly, not to provide a comfortable place for pedestrians to move around, which is why we have problems with crowded sidewalks and bad street furniture.”

As the amount of traffic on Hong Kong’s streets has increased, the number of pedestrian crossings has declined, said Paul Zimmerman, chief executive officer of Designing Hong Kong. Fences are used to force pedestrians to cross only at areas where they won’t impede the flow of traffic. Zebra crossings, at which cars are obligated to stop for pedestrians, have become rare.

“Why are they choosing cars over pedestrians?” he asked. “Are they going to put fences everywhere and let the sidewalks become completely overcrowded? There has to be a point where pedestrians will say, ‘That’s it, I want to be able to cross conveniently at street level, and I don’t want to be crammed in on the sidewalk.’”

A spokesperson for the Highways Department and Transport Department said that the fences are used primarily for “the control, protection and guidance of pedestrians.” They are erected near intersections, crosswalks and building entrances and along streets like Dundas, where pedestrians regularly spill into the path of vehicular traffic. Each metre of railing costs between HK$200 and $300 to install.

Michael Siu Kin-wai, a street furniture expert at the Polytechnic University’s School of Design, said that while the fences are necessary in some cases, there are alternatives that aren’t as burdensome to pedestrians, like bollards, which prevent vehicles from mounting the sidewalk but allow easy access to the street.

Ultimately, he said, the government should consider widening sidewalks to make more room for pedestrians. Traffic calming should also be considered, said Zimmerman, who pointed to the streets around Lee Gardens in Causeway Bay, where fences have been replaced by bollards, roadways narrowed and speed-bumps installed to slow down vehicles.

In smaller streets, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing for vehicles and pedestrians to mix, he said. “If people walk on the street, and the cars and pedestrians share that space, you don’t see too many accidents. You can have safe situations without all the fences. What needs to happen is for the speed of cars to be brought down to pedestrian levels.”

A spokesperson for the Transport Department said that it would not be possible to widen the footpath on on Dundas Street because it is a conduit for cars and minibuses travelling from Fa Yuen Street to Nathan Road. However, if the buildings along Dundas Street are redeveloped, the spokesperson said, “we would take the opportunity to request for a setback of the respective building boundaries for widening the footpath.”

“I think this is something we have to fight, this mentality that favours vehicular traffic,” said Pong Yuen-yee, who has worked with the government to improve the pedestrian environment in Sheung Wan. “It’s getting better. Before, there were no compromises, but now, because many other cities are giving priority to pedestrians, attitudes are moving along, but very slowly.”

In the meantime, pedestrians continue to ignore the fence on Dundas Street. “What are you going to do? It’s Mongkok,” said a Sai Kung-bound red minibus driver waiting to pick up passengers on the street. He said he wasn’t troubled by the number of people walking in the roadway. “There’s always going to be lots of people around here. You deal with it.”

Another version of this story appeared in the September 19th, 2010 edition of the South China Morning Post.


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3 comments

  1. Patrick Donovan says:

    Good article!

    Those sidewalk fences always provoke indescribable rage whenever I travel.

    Worse still in Hong Kong (and in numerous mainland China cities) are the pedestrian overpasses and underpasses that turn a simple street crossing into a pain in the ass and create barriers all over the city.

    September 22nd, 2010 at 3:13 pm

  2. C. Szabla says:

    What I don’t understand is how a small, relatively self-contained city-state like Hong Kong has become so emphatic about facilitating the flow of car traffic. The city (and even the New Territories) are so densely built, and the MTR efficient enough that car ownership seems pretty unnecessary, even a hindrance. And any long-distance driving involves crossing what’s effectively an international border into a country with right-hand drive, which much make using HK cars there somewhat difficult.

    If a lot of people do drive there, who are they and why have they chosen to? If they don’t, why is the government caving to such a minority interest? Is this a class issue?

    September 22nd, 2010 at 5:44 pm

  3. Christopher DeWolf says:

    There are fewer than 500,000 registered private vehicles in Hong Kong, which means that less than seven percent of the population owns a car. Some of those live in parts of the New Territories where a car really is necessary. But many members of the upper middle-class see car ownership as a status symbol. It’s something useful for ferrying around the extended family on Sunday or taking weekend trips out to the country park. Or just driving around town in a Mercedes Benz to show everyone who’s boss.

    When it comes to pedestrians, Hong Kong drivers are the most ruthless and arrogant I’ve encountered in Asia, with the exception of mainland China. Drivers in Seoul, Taipei, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur are aggressive, but they don’t have the same contempt for pedestrians that drivers have here.

    But private vehicles only make up a minority of road traffic during the day. Most traffic is made up of buses, minibuses, taxis, vans and trucks. For their drivers, the free flow of traffic means they can make a better living, so they can actually be a pretty important pressure group when it comes to anything that restricts vehicular access.

    The real problem is the government’s attitude. It isn’t necessarily pro-rail or pro-car — it’s simply pro-infrastructure. As in, the more of it, the better. That’s why billions of dollars are being spent on new highways and new bridges, including a massive bridge to Macau and Zhuhai. There’s no real rationale for building these other than as an easy way for the government to stimulate economic growth.

    If you ask why the government is so intent on facilitating the free flow of vehicular traffic, even at the expense of pedestrians, they’ll reply that Hong Kong has some of the densest road traffic in the world and that the number of vehicles on the road is always growing. It never seems to have crossed anyone’s mind that it would be a good thing to reduce the number of vehicles on the road. When the SCMP ran a story about a surge in private car ownership in recent years, some transport planner was quoted as saying that Hong Kong still doesn’t have as high a rate of car ownership as Singapore or Taiwan, so we have room to grow. That kind of mentality sees car ownership as an inherent economic good, not a problem with serious social and environmental consequences.

    There are also some political motivations behind new infrastructure projects like the Macau/Zhuhai bridge and the Deep Water Bay bridge to Shenzhen that was completed a few years ago. Some officials have been quoted as saying they’re an important step for Hong Kong to become more integrated with the mainland. There are currently plans to allow a limited number of mainland vehicles to drive into Hong Kong — which is absolutely crazy.

    September 23rd, 2010 at 12:53 am

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