Pedestrians feel the squeeze from cars and planners
When urban planner Peter Cookson-Smith steps out of his Wan Chai office, he does not 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'?'
The city's pavements are becoming more and more crowded - and planners and urban design critics say the government's transport polices are only worsening the situation.
'Pedestrians are not respected in Hong Kong,' said Pong Yuen-yee, former vice-president of the Hong Kong Institute of Planners. And that is despite the fact that more than 90 per cent of Hongkongers get around by foot and public transport, Pong says.
'For a long time, the vehicular traffic has been the 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, the Transport Department launched an ambitious plan to restrict portions of shopping areas to pedestrians. But progress has mostly ground to a halt since 2004.
Albert Lee Wai-bun, chief engineer of the government's Kowloon traffic engineering division, insists the initiative has not been stopped.
'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 says after the Transport Department proceeded with its pedestrianisation plan in the early 2000s, it met an increasingly critical reception from district councils, which cited a variety of concerns from residents and businesses, including noise and loss of vehicular access. There was also a backlash against an invasion of touts in pedestrianised areas selling subscriptions for phones, internet and television services, and often obstructing the street with advertising placards.
Since 2010, the evening traffic ban on Sai Yeung Choi Street has ended an hour earlier - at 11pm instead of midnight - in response to resident complaints about noise and light pollution from pedestrians.
'It is a 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.
'The FEHD [Food and Environmental Hygiene Department] is neglecting their duty to manage hawkers and the police don't manage the streets because they say it's not their job. That's why the whole thing came to a stop. No department is prepared to take responsibility.'
Lee says that the Transport Department is now focusing on other ways to increase the pedestrian capacity of busy districts, including a plan to build a network of pedestrian tunnels beneath Causeway Bay, from Victoria Park to Times Square and Happy Valley, and to extend the footbridge system in Mong Kok along Argyle Street and Mong Kok Road.
Since 1986, the number of footbridges and subways maintained by the Highways Department has risen from 422 to 1,152. But pedestrians dislike footbridges and subways. A government Audit Commission in 2010 noted that: 'Many pedestrians do not like to use them because of the need to walk a longer distance involving staircases or ramps.'
The Highways Department says it objects to ground-level crossings because they reduce vehicle speeds to below 50 kilometres per hour, create stop-and-go traffic and encourage pedestrians to jaywalk.
Paul Zimmerman, head of Designing Hong Kong said: 'People pick attractive routes, and part of what makes a route attractive is being able to see other people, to window shop, to have an experience. With subways and footbridges that becomes quite limited.'
He 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 10 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 82 per cent would prefer a ground-level crossing.
When asked if ground-level crossings on Salisbury Road will be reinstated, Albert Lee replied: 'The impact on traffic may be too significant.' He also said the subway was safer for pedestrians, and it was in their best interest to use it, even if they may prefer otherwise.
'It's very paternalistic,' said Pong Yuen-yee. 'I'm telling you what is best for you - this is the mentality. Pedestrians are like prisoners.'
More than this percentage of days last year saw high or very high roadside pollution levels in Central business district