Pedestrians lose ground as railings turn footpaths into obstacle courses

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 September, 2010, 12:00am

It's midweek in Mong Kok and two pedestrians try to push their way through a mass of people on Dundas Street.

One of the pair glances at the grey metal fence along the pavement that stops him from escaping the crush by stepping into the road or crossing the street.

'What a hassle,' he says. 'That thing is such a pain.'

The fences are meant to keep vehicles and pedestrians apart, but urban design experts say they instead turn pavements into obstacle courses without doing enough to keep pedestrians safe from traffic.

It's just one more sign of how pedestrians are losing ground to vehicles in the city's increasingly congested streets.

Every day, more than 200,000 pedestrians pass through the centre of Mong Kok, making it one of the most crowded places in Hong Kong.

At peak hours, the footpath on Dundas Street, between Sai Yeung Choi Street and the Tung Choi Street Ladies' Market, becomes so congested that many people prefer to dodge cars and minibuses instead of trying to inch along the packed pavement. In June, the Highways Department tried to put a stop to pedestrians using the roadway by installing a long fence along the entire length of the pavement. But sometimes there are still more people on the street than the pavement.

It's not just pedestrians who are annoyed by the railing. 'The fence has been bad for business because people can't easily cross the street to get here,' the owner of a dispensary halfway down the block said.

Last year, the government spent HK$11 million on new pavement railings, adding to the 730 kilometres of railings that were already there.

'For a long time now, Hong Kong has been planned for vehicles, not pedestrians,' Pong Yuen-yee, former vice-president of the Hong Kong Institute of Planners, said. '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.'

There are other signs that pedestrians are losing out to vehicles. According to Designing Hong Kong chief executive Paul Zimmerman, as the amount of traffic on Hong Kong's streets has increased, the number of pedestrian crossings has declined. Fences are used to force pedestrians to cross only at areas where they will not impede the traffic flow. Zebra crossings, where cars have to stop for pedestrians, have become rare.

'Why are they choosing cars over pedestrians?' he said. '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 spokesman for the highways and transport departments said the fences were mainly for 'the control, protection and guidance of pedestrians'. They were 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 HK$300 to install.

Michael Siu Kin-wai, a street furniture expert at the Polytechnic University's School of Design, said that while the fences were necessary in some cases, there were alternatives like bollards, that were less of a burden on pedestrians.

Ultimately, he said, the government should consider widening pavements to make more room for pedestrians. Traffic calming should also be considered, Zimmerman said.

He said that in smaller streets, it wasn't necessarily a bad thing for vehicles and pedestrians to mix. '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 Transport Department spokesman said it would not be possible to widen the footpath on Dundas Street because it was a conduit for cars and minibuses travelling from Fa Yuen Street to Nathan Road. But, if the buildings along Dundas Street were redeveloped, the spokesman said, 'we would take the opportunity to request a setback of the respective building boundaries for widening the footpath'.

Pong said: 'I think this is something we have to fight, this mentality that favours vehicular traffic. 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.'

Iron curtain

The city's expenditure, in Hong Kong dollars, on pavement railings last year was about: $11m