When Hong Kong urban planner Peter Cookson-Smith steps out of his office in Wan Chai, he doesn’t like what he sees.
“You go out into the street and find yourself walking on the road because the pavements are so crowded,” he said. “People just want to walk in an unobstructed way, but there are railings everywhere and you must walk halfway down the block just to find a crossing. It’s psychologically debilitating. You think, oh my god, how do I get from here to there?”
Hong Kong is the world’s most densely-populated city and it is growing more crowded every day, as its neighbourhoods are intensively redeveloped with high-rise shopping malls, apartment towers, hotels and offices. Increasingly, residents are being joined by tens of millions of tourists, whose numbers have skyrocketed over the past decade, thanks to a loosening of visa restrictions on travel from mainland China.
Other space-deprived cities have coped by reducing the flow of traffic — see London and its congestion charge — and by converting car-choked streets into pedestrian areas, as New York did with Times Square. But Hong Kong’s efforts to make the city more pedestrian-friendly appear to have stalled, and local planners and urban design critics say the government’s day-to-day management of the pedestrian environment is actually making things worse.
“Pedestrians are not respected in Hong Kong,” said Pong Yuen-yee, former vice-president of the Hong Kong Institute of Planners — and this despite the fact that all but 10 percent of the population gets around by foot and public transport. “For a long time, the vehicular traffic has been in top priority. These days, people don’t want to walk in the streets because of the air quality, because of the environment, the noise. They forget what a pleasant footpath can be like.”
Twelve years ago, Hong Kong’s Transport Department took steps to address the problem by pedestrianising large portions of busy shopping areas. Some streets were closed to vehicles on a full-time basis, while others, like Sai Yeung Choi Street in Mongkok, were pedestrianised only in the evenings. Still more streets were traffic-calmed, with wider sidewalks and reconfigured roadways that slow down cars and create a more comfortable walking experience.
Recently, though, progress has ground nearly to a halt. Since 2004, only a handful of streets have been pedestrianised, and they were all located in street markets that were essentially car-free to begin with. Traffic-calming works are under construction in the shopping and entertainment areas of Tsim Sha Tsui and Jordan, but no new pedestrianised areas are planned.
Albert Lee Wai-bun, chief engineer for the Transport Department’s Traffic Engineering Kowloon Division, insists the initiative has not been stopped. “It may to a certain extent appear to the public that it has come to a halt, but it isn’t like that,” he told me recently. “There are a lot of things that need to be sorted out. Over time, we found that the development of full-time and part-time pedestrianisation was increasingly difficult.”
Lee said that, after it went ahead with its pedestrianisation programme in the early 2000s, the Transport Department was met by an increasingly frosty reception from local district councils, which complained about noise and light pollution caused by increased business in part-time pedestrian streets, which had become popular evening destinations.
There was also a backlash against the invasion of pedestrian streets by touts selling subscriptions for phone, internet and television services, often by setting up advertising placards and booths that obstruct the street. Since 2010, the pedestrian-only period on Sai Yeung Choi Street has ended one hour earlier, at 11pm instead of midnight, in response to resident complaints about noise and light pollution.
“It is pity, because even though there was a lot of initiative from the Transport Department, the pedestrian streets have a lot of management problems,” said Pong, who worked on a pedestrianisation project in Sheung Wan. Problems like touts and illegal advertising are passed between different government departments like a hot potato that no one wants to hold.
Lee told me that, instead of more pedestrian streets, the Transport Department is now focusing on other ways to increase the pedestrian capacity of busy districts. One of these is a plan to build a network of pedestrian tunnels beneath Causeway Bay, from Victoria Park to Times Square and Happy Valley; another is to extend the footbridge system in Mongkok along Argyle Street and Mong Kok Road.
Footbridge on Mong Kok Road
Grade-separated pedestrian networks like footbridges and subways have become a popular way for the government to segregate foot and vehicular traffic. Since 1986, the number of footbridges and subways maintained by the Highways Department has increased from 422 to 1,152.
But footbridges and subways are strongly disliked by pedestrians. A government audit report on pedestrian crossings noted in 2010 that “although footbridges and subways provide better safety protection to pedestrians and facilitate more efficient traffic flows, many pedestrians do not like to use them because of the need to walk a longer distance involving staircases or ramps.” Given the choice, 70.4 percent of pedestrians prefer ground-level crossings, according to a 2003 government survey.
The Highways Department, which builds and manages footbridges and subways, has said that it objects to ground-level crossings because they reduce vehicle speeds below 50 kilometres per hour, create stop-and-go traffic and encourage pedestrians to jaywalk.
Urban design critics say this attitude is exactly the reason why walking is such a chore in Hong Kong. “People pick attractive routes, and part of what makes a route attract is being able to see other people, to window shop, to have an experience,” said Paul Zimmerman, CEO of Designing Hong Kong. “With subways and footbridges that becomes quite limited. We need a plan put in place that recognises the need for a quality street-level environment and street-level crossings.”
Zimmerman points to Salisbury Road and Kowloon Park Drive in Tsim Sha Tsui as an example of where the government’s pedestrian policies go wrong. Over the past ten years, a subway network has been developed beneath the two roads, accompanied by the closure of ground-level crosswalks, a move the Hong Kong Institute of Planners decried as “unfriendly to pedestrians” in 2005.
Last year, Designing Hong Kong interviewed 418 pedestrians and found that a large majority dislike the new subway — one called it a “disaster” and several others said it made them less likely to visit Tsim Sha Tsui. 82 percent of those interviewed said they would prefer a ground-level crosswalk to the subway.
I asked Albert Lee if ground-level crossings on Salisbury Road will be reinstated. He said that, if they are reintroduced, they would clog traffic, “because people may tend to use the at-grade crossing more than the subway” — and if that were the case, “we are a bit concerned that the facility we provide may not be fully utilised.”
Lee also emphasized that the subway is much safer for pedestrians than a ground-level crossing. Even if they don’t like using the subway, it’s in their best interests to do so, he said.
I told Pong Yuen-yee about this and asked her to respond. “It’s very paternalistic,” she said. “I’m telling you what is best for you -– this is the mentality. Pedestrians are like prisoners.”
Sidewalk with typical railings. Photo by Oriol Salvador
A version of this story was published in the South China Morning Post on March 25, 2012.
Tags: Footbridges, Hong Kong, Kowloon, Pedestrianization, Pedestrians, Policy, Sidewalks, Traffic, Traffic Calming, Urban Design