“We want to make Hong Kong into a world-class walkable city,” said Carrie Leung, Senior Engineer – Walkability at the Transport Department, speaking at a roundtable luncheon on 6 September.
An ambitious goal, but as she explained, in some aspects, Hong Kong does quite well when it comes to walking.
Our citizens take an average of 6,880 steps per day, well ahead of the global average of just under 5,000. This is partly thanks to Hong Kong’s excellent public transport system, which means that – unlike in car-dependent regions – people generally walk the “last mile” to and from their homes, workplaces and other destinations.
However, as Leung pointed out: “We have a reason to walk, but this does not mean that our city is ‘walkable.’” There remains a great deal to be done in making the streets of Hong Kong more pedestrian friendly, and we are behind cities like Seoul, Melbourne and Barcelona in the global trend towards walkability.
The Transport Department is currently carrying out a public consultation as part of its plans to improve walkability, and will introduce changes first in two pilot areas, Central and Sham Sui Po. The aim is to shift the focus of urban design to pedestrians, not cars. “We really need to change the traditional mindset of vehicle-oriented planning,” Leung said.
Streets serve different functions, Leung explained. They act as links, but can also be destinations in themselves, which would encourage more people to enjoy them. Central, for example, is a conventional business district but also has cultural areas and historic buildings. So the intention is to improve connectivity between the CBD and the uphill areas to encourage pedestrians to explore. In Sham Sui Po, the aim is to connect the traditional core of this dense urban area with the new developments near the waterfront.
Specific suggestions include more raised crossings, reducing the amount of space for vehicle access to buildings, lowering speed limits, and decluttering. Part of decluttering could see the removal of some of the many railings, which hamper pedestrian flow while not necessarily providing additional safety benefits.
“The original purpose of the railings was to channel pedestrians towards safe road crossing points,” Leung explained. “However, drivers see these as an opportunity to drive faster.”
Pedestrian-only streets – including on a part-time basis – is another policy that is being considered. For example, streets in Soho that are dominated by restaurants and bars could become car-free at the weekends.
However, as Leung explained, this is a controversial area. Attempts to pedestrianize streets so far have had mixed results, with some district councils raising concerns about “auntie dancing” and illegal hawkers. One of the councils’ key complaints is that street management has not been efficient, which has allowed the problems of noise and inconvenience to arise.
The intention of this policy is good, Leung said, but a high level of coordination within the Government is needed to ensure that it has the desired effect.
Several of the questions from participants at the roundtable referred to this perceived lack of cooperation among Government departments, and also apparent policy contradictions.
For example, regulations insist that new buildings give a considerable amount of space, including at ground-floor level, to parking. This not only encourages more car use, but also makes the streets less pleasant for pedestrians. Leung explained that district councils and some members of the public feel that more car parks are necessary to discourage drivers from parking illegally.
Hong Kong clearly has a long way to go if it is to be considered a truly walkable city. But the Government is taking action and Hong Kong residents can expect to see some of the proposals – including decluttering and raised crossings – being rolled out by early next year.