Archive for the Transportation category
April 17th, 2013
I often get angry when I walk around Hong Kong. This is one of the most fascinating cities in the world to explore — densely layered, pulsing with energy — but it’s also one of the most frustrating because of all the ways the pedestrian experience is undermined and made unpleasant. In the city with the lowest car ownership rate in the developed world, pedestrians are treated like second-class citizens.
Designing Hong Kong recently launched an interesting new initiative called Missing Links, which is lobbying the government to improve pedestrian linkages around the city. One particularly egregious example is Salisbury Road in Tsim Sha Tsui, which runs parallel to the harbourfront in Tsim Sha Tsui. In the past, crosswalks allowed pedestrians to easily walk to the waterfront, but a major traffic engineering project about 10 years ago removed all surface-level crossings and forced pedestrians into a confusing system of underground passageways. Walking through them is not much different from being a rat in a maze. To say it’s a dispiriting experience would be an understatement: if life is a series of tile-walled tunnels, I’ll take the next exit out, thank you very much.
This is just one example of what’s wrong in Hong Kong. What’s even more outrageous is the systematic denigration of pedestrians in the city’s entire network of streets. There are the legendarily narrow sidewalks, made even narrower by the presence of roadside fences that eat up valuable pedestrian space. When a sidewalk becomes overcrowded, it isn’t widened, it’s fenced in, the way the jam-packed sidewalk of Dundas Street was fenced in when too many people started walking in the street.
Crosswalks at major intersections are generally too narrow and surrounded by fences that create artificial choke points. Minor intersections have absolutely no provisions for pedestrians: no crosswalks, just a “Look Left” or “Look Right” sign painted on the asphalt. Pedestrians are meant to wait for oncoming vehicles, which always have the right of way unless there is a zebra crossing. And while there are zebra crossings here and there, usually in very quiet parts of town, in recent years they have become even more endangered than the animals for which they are named.
February 27th, 2013
Not too long ago, on a particularly glorious Sunday afternoon — the kind of sunny but cool day that happens all too rarely in Hong Kong — I took the MTR out to Po Lam station in Tseung Kwan O. Leaving the station, I walked along a linear park built atop the MTR tracks, which led me to another path that meandered under a series of elevated highways and then down to the waterfront near Tseung Kwan O station, a couple of stops away from Po Lam.
Lots of people were out enjoying the afternoon. I passed by plenty of cyclists — kids with training wheels, lycra types on road bikes, middle-aged women on rusty beaters with groceries in the front basket. There were skateboarders, teenagers playing guitars, an old man playing the erhu, joggers, people pushing strollers, an old woman selling potato chips and Yakult on the side of the path. There was even a makeshift mosque set up beneath a highway flyover where Indonesian maids sat listening to a sermon broadcast over a crackly radio. It was the kind of diverse urban activity you find on a truly dynamic street.
But none of this was taking place on a street, or even in a real park. The paths where all this activity took place are entirely removed from the surrounding commercial and residential areas. Most of them are lined by rows of trees and shrubs, beyond which are fences, walls or embankments. The paths are not unpleasant, thanks to the greenery, but the heavy pedestrian traffic on that Sunday afternoon existed in a kind of void: a lot of people passing through nowhere to go nowhere in particular.
February 25th, 2013
Even in well-behaved cities, late-night public transit often veers into the debauched, as well-lubricated straphangers make their way home from bars. People in Toronto call overnight buses “vomit comets”; passengers riding Hong Kong’s red minibuses are informed by prominent signs that they will be charged HK$300 if “your vomitus smears the carriage.” So it’s almost a bit of a disappointment when, on the few occasions when the MTR runs all night, a 3am ride on the spotless, ever-efficient metro system feels almost the same as a ride at 3pm.
Almost, but not quite. Though the harsh fluorescent lights remain unwaveringly timeless, there’s a noticeable difference in behaviour. During the day, everyone tries to remain as impassive as possible, faces buried in mobile devices or staring up to the ceiling, pretending they aren’t a few inches from a fellow passenger’s ripe armpit or some heavy breather with a chest cold. At night, things loosen up. There are more conversations between friends, people are less guarded with their emotions, as was the case when I made my way home a few hours after midnight last New Year’s Eve.
December 12th, 2012
Despite the fact that I’ve never owned a car, and I drive only a couple of times a year, I’ve always had a fascination with car design. When I was a kid, I knew all the marques. I would sit in the back seat of my parents’ van, naming the cars that went by, a copy of the Consumer Reports car guide on my lap. Even today, when I’m stuck on traffic on the bus here in Hong Kong, I’ll gaze out and catalogue my fellow travellers: the bulbous Nissan Marchs, hulking Toyota Alphards, the endless varieties of 3-Series BMWs and C-Class Mercedes that are so common in Hong Kong.
Of course, my interest isn’t limited to private automobiles. When I visited other North American cities with my family, I noted with interest how New Flyer buses were common in the west, Novabuses in the east. I learned to appreciate the classic New Look buses that served as workhorses on so many Calgary Transit routes, retro-stylish even as they struggled up the long hill to my house, ancient engines moaning in protest.
I bring this up because of Thomas Heatherwick, who delivered a very animated and entertaining talk last weekend at the Business of Design Week forum in Hong Kong. Heatherwick is a British designer whose London-based studio has produced, among other things, the “Seed Cathedral” at the 2010 Shanghai Expo and the spectacular cauldron of the 2012 Olympic Games. Heatherwick is also the designer of the New Bus for London, which he highlighted in his talk at BODW.
When the bus was unveiled last year, there was some sense that it was at best a vanity project, at worst an attempt to indulge nostalgia, since the new bus was meant as a revival of the iconic Routemaster bus, which was produced until 1968, retired from regular service in 2005 and known for its hop-on, hop-off open back end. The typically rancorous peanut gallery at Dezeen blasted Heatherwick’s design as “steampunky art nouveau” and a “glorified student project” that put “fashion over function.” One cranky commenter insisted that “the bus should be practical above all else,” as if Heatherwick had produced a three-wheeled jitney that ran on the distilled essence of gold.
June 24th, 2012
A few months ago, I was sitting outside Café Loisl with Melissa Cate Christ, an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Hong Kong. We were there to discuss the proposed Pound Lane escalator, which would run straight up the staircase in front of the café, replacing a century-old series of steps with a whirring machine. Beyond the disruptive effect the escalator could have on the surrounding community, Christ was concerned about the potential loss of history when the Pound Lane steps were dug up.
“Old stairs are many times a sign of something else,” said Christ as I took a sip of cappuccino. When the government planned to sell the former Central Police Married Quarters, the presence of an old series of steps led archaeologists to the long-buried ruins of the Central School, Sun Yat-sen’s alma matter, which had been bombed during World War II.
As you might expect from a city built on series of hills and mountain slopes, Hong Kong has a lot of staircases, some of them linking two roads at different elevations, others serving as streets themselves. These so-called “ladder streets” are among Hong Kong’s oldest, and in most cases their stone steps are the oldest surviving structures around. Some of these streets — including Ladder Street, appropriately enough — have been designated as historic sites, but most have no protection whatsoever, so they are often encased in concrete. It seems the city’s engineers, in their quest to transform Hong Kong into a giant highway off-ramp, have decided that a rough mixture of sand, cement and water is more durable than a slab of granite that has withstood a century’s worth of footfalls.
June 17th, 2012
Saint-Jean-Baptiste Boulevard, Montreal, Spring 2011
Urban design proposed for the boulevard, February 2012
Last year, my team and the planning service of Rivière-des-Prairies-Pointe-aux-Trembles borough worked to rethink the design of Saint-Jean-Baptiste Boulevard. It is located east of downtown Montreal, where it crosses old districts from the early 1900s and suburbs from the 1960s. It was planned for 2,200 cars per hour, but only 700 cars per hour use it at its peak. In other words, it poses a considerable challenge.
This five-kilometre boulevard starts in the old urban district, bordering the St. Lawrence River, then passes through a commercial area typical of the 1960s, before furrowing through an industrial park, crossing a future train station and then ends up against the Rivière des Prairies in the far east end of Montreal.
Our project evolved for a few months, then was presented to merchants who now fear an economic slowdown caused by an increased risk of congestion on the boulevard. They basically see the projet as a very bad opportunity for them.
June 12th, 2012
If you live in Montreal, you’ll eventually be asked the question: “Which way is the underground city?” You will probably be walking along Ste. Catherine Street, the city’s main shopping artery, where H&M and Zara jostle for space with strip clubs and hot dog joints. Or maybe you will be making your way through the lunch-hour crowds at McGill metro, the city’s busiest subway station. Either way, some puzzled visitors clutching a free tourist map will ask you a question that you will find particularly difficult to answer. The best you can do is to point them to the entrance of the nearest shopping mall or metro station and explain, “It’s there, but it might not be what you imagine.”
One of the first things any tourist guide to Montreal tells you is that the city is home to a 32-kilometre network of shopping malls, office buildings, apartment towers, cultural centres, universities and civic institutions connected by subway lines and a sinuous network of underground passageways. On those brutal winter days when the the thermostat plunges below -20 degrees Celsius, you can go to work, watch a movie, buy a baguette, attend a concert, go skating, visit the library and finally return home, all without venturing outdoors. Somehow, though, the underground city has taken on levels of meaning outside Montreal that it never quite achieved at home. Tourists seem to picture a Willy Wonka wonderland of enterprising Oompa Loompas untouched by the light of day. Locals are nonplussed. For them, it’s a way to get from one place to another. When the journalist Fabien Deglise wrote a book about the underground city, he called it Montréal souterrain, sous le béton, le mythe. Underground Montreal: the Myth Beneath the Concrete.
Make no mistake, however: the underground city is more than the sum of its parts. For one thing, “underground city” is a bit of a misnomer, since many parts of the network exist above ground. It’s really an indoor city, a kind of interconnected, three-dimensional space. “Underground Montreal is an amalgam of grey tunnels and bright avenues, of escalators and indoor squares populated by fast food and shops of all types,” writes design critic Emmanuelle Vieira. “This city in successive layers is incoherent, imperfect, but it holds its own. It is the image of own own society: lively, diverse and creative, linked intimately with the culture of consumption.” It also the unlikely triumph of modernist ideals that long ago fell by the architectural wayside, only to now be reconsidered and—in some cases—rehabilitated.
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May 28th, 2012
Palermo was a surprise. I didn’t know what to expect, because the only images I had in my head were the Sicilian gangsters of early 20th century America and the assassination of Mary Corleone in The Godfather Part III, which took place on the steps of the Teatro Massimo, Italy’s biggest opera house and one of Palermo’s greatest landmarks. In other words, I pictured the Mafia and little else. What I encountered was a city with great coffee, back alley markets and bustling streets relatively untouched by tourism and gentrification. Compared to the earnest orderliness of Munich, where I had spent a couple of days before going to Italy, Palermo has a certain grimy insouciance that I find endearing.
Palermo is Sicily’s largest city and also one of its oldest, having been founded by the Phoenicians more than 2,700 years ago. It sits in the island’s northeast, on a stretch of coastline punctuated by limestone mountains. They guard the city in every direction, their watchful stare visible from every major street. Palermo’s population nearly doubled in the 1950s and 60s, and much of the city is dominated by hastily-built apartment blocks that give it a shoddy, crowded appearance. The so-called “Sack of Palermo” obliterated much of the nearby countryside and led to the neglect of its historic centre, but it also gave the city a noisy vitality.
April 25th, 2012
It’s as predictable as the tide. Every morning, thousands of commuters stream down the Central Mid-Levels escalator, bound for offices, buses and crowded subway cars at the bottom of the hill. Then, at 10:30am, the escalator reverses itself. Now the crowds flow uphill. Helpers return from the market with bags full of choi, the lunch crowd trickles up to Soho restaurants. When evening arrives, work-weary commuters are carried up to drink, dinner and bed.
Nearly two decades after the completion of the Central-Mid-Levels escalator, it’s hard to think of Hong Kong without it. Its network of covered escalators, moving walkways and footbridges spans a distance of 800 metres from Queen’s Road Central to Conduit Road, making the trek up steep hillsides—135 metres in elevation from bottom to top, about the same as a 40-storey building—as easy as a walk through a shopping mall.
It’s certainly popular. When it opened in 1993, the escalator was expected to carry 26,000 people per day. It is now used by nearly 43,000. Its popularity with pedestrians has prompted the government to plan similar escalator links in 20 other locations around Hong Kong. The first of these will open later this year on Centre Street in Sai Ying Pun, while another escalator, on Pound Lane in Sheung Wan, is being planned.
But the use of escalators as a form of public transportation is being met with an increasingly critical response from design critics, academics and activists. “Is this an appropriate use of technology?” asked urbanist Min Li Chan on the international urban issues blog Polis. “Is this simply a shiny new idea with press value that leaves unintended social consequences in its wake? How should we measure its impact on people’s lives, and its return on the city’s investment?”
These are the questions being raised by residents and business owners in the sleepy neighbourhood around Pound Lane, where the government is planning to build a 200-metre escalator from Tai Ping Shan Street to Bonham Road. Along the way, it will pass by Hong Kong’s first public toilet, schools, temples, tenements and Blake Garden, Hong Kong’s oldest public park, which was built after the bubonic plague swept through the area in 1894, killing more than 3,000. Proponents say it will reduce traffic and provide relief to the neighbourhood’s many elderly residents. Opponents say it will destroy the peaceful, low-key ambiance that sets this part of Sheung Wan apart from the development frenzy of Central and the Mid-Levels.
April 19th, 2012
I came across these bicycles on Janpath, in Central Delhi, not far from Connaught Place. They were resting just outside a construction site, so I assume they were owned by workers. What caught my eye wasn’t the bikes, though, it was the woven plastic baskets hanging from each of their handles.
April 4th, 2012
Eight years ago, I was crossing Fairmount Avenue near my apartment in Montreal’s Mile End district when I noticed a strange addition to the zebra crossing beneath my feet: barbed wire. Not actual barbed wire, but a painted rendition of it along the edge of the crosswalk, half in yellow, the other half white, both colours indistinguishable from the other road markings on the street.
Strange, I thought. Is this a new initiative by the city to raise awareness of pedestrian rights? A nod to the sanctity of the crosswalk? Before I could finish crossing the street, a car sailed past me without bothering to stop.
By the time summer arrived, everyone had noticed the funny new road markings around town. Lane dividers were turned into giant zippers. Crosswalk zebra stripes became birthday candles. One crossing had become a giant shoeprint. Many of the works made brilliant use of nighttime shadows: owls stranded in the middle of asphalt during the day found a perch after dark. It was unlike any graffiti I had seen before. I wondered who had done it.
My answer came in July, when I visited Wooster Collective, a street art blog. There, I found images of the road stencils I had been walking past for month, and attached to them was a name: Roadsworth. They were accompanied by a brief Q&A.
March 26th, 2012
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.”
February 12th, 2012
Photo by Charlotte Huang
Hong Kong’s not a big place, and with 28 million mainland Chinese visitors a year, it’s beginning to feel even more crowded than usual. The stress seems to have gotten to a lot of people. Over the past month, a handful of seemingly banal conflicts between Hongkongers and mainland tourists have been amplified beyond all proportion.
An argument over spilled noodles in the MTR somehow led to a Peking University professor calling Hong Kong people “dogs” and “bastards” who should speak Mandarin instead of Cantonese. An ill-advised remark by a Dolce & Gabbana security guard, who said that Hong Kong people are banned from taking photos of the shop but mainlanders aren’t, sparked an online firestorm and protests in the street. Mainland women who come to Hong Kong to have their babies delivered in local hospitals, thus ensuring Hong Kong residency for their children, were called “locusts” in a full-page printed in Apple Daily, Hong Kong’s second-most-read newspaper.
Now, the latest source of controversy: a government plan to allow mainland Chinese visitors to bring their cars into Hong Kong, despite the mainland’s notoriously poor standards of driving and the perils of operating a left-hand-drive car on the opposite side of the road — not to mention Hong Kong’s worsening congestion and air pollution. Those are some of the concerns of the thousands of people who have pledged their support for various Facebook protests, which call for the government to scrap its scheme. They are being joined in their demands by a coalition of environmental groups, social activists and opposition political parties.
“Drivers don’t obey the rules on the mainland,” says Kay Lam, a columnist for Apple Daily, who started a Facebook group opposed to the scheme. “Why would they follow the rules here? One mistake could be fatal. When it comes to safety, there should be no compromises.”
The government’s plan is based on a 2010 agreement made with authorities in the mainland province of Guangdong, which borders Hong Kong. Starting next month, Hong Kong motorists will be able to apply for a limited number of cross-border driving permits. Later, Guangdong drivers may do the same, giving them a chance to bring their cars to Hong Kong. When I asked a spokeswoman for the Transport and Housing Bureau for details, I was told that “there is not yet a concrete timetable” and the specifics still need to be hammered out.
February 7th, 2012
Photo by Bartek Kucharczyk
It all happened so quickly. Suzanne Hart, a 41 year old ad exec, was heading to work in her Midtown Manhattan office building on a busy mid-December morning when, crossing the threshold of a filling elevator, her foot became stuck between the elevator car and the solid ground of the first floor. That’s when the unexpected occurred: the car, with its doors still open, suddenly shot upward, dragging her body into the narrow space between its still-open doors and the walls of the shaft it was travelling through. The passengers who had made it safely on board were forced to watch through the open door as, in the dim, grim crevasse outside, Hart’s life ended instantly. It took an hour before they were able to get away — about nine before anyone was able to extract Hart’s remains.
Like buses, subways, and cabs, elevators are a critical form of urban transportation, even if — outside of the handful of places where public elevators scale hills and cliffs — they’re much less likely to be thought of as such. For millions of people who live and work in vertical cities like New York, São Paulo, and Hong Kong, they’re more than mere appendages to morning and evening commutes. Workers and residents in particularly tall buildings may sometimes spend more time in elevator shafts than subway tubes; “the local” is how many New Yorkers jokingly refer to elevators that stop on every floor (many supertall skyscrapers, like the Empire State Building, actually do have local and express elevator systems that mirror the city’s two-tiered subway).
The density of a city like New York would scarcely be possible without transit that can transcend congestion by moving underground as well as ascend from it to the soaring towers above. When Haruki Murakami wanted to emphasize that a character in his latest novel, IQ84, had never experienced the city, he described her as having never ridden either a subway or an elevator. “As the world urbanizes—every year, in developing countries, sixty million people move into cities—the numbers [of those who ride elevators] will go up, and up and down,” writes Nick Paumgarten in a 2008 article for the New Yorker. “The elevator, underrated and overlooked,” he continues, “is to the city what paper is to reading and gunpowder is to war.”