Time for Hong Kong to reclaim the streets

Gavin Coates says the city's urbandesign must cater to pedestrians first, rather than car owners,if we want fewer traffic jams, cleaner air and a more pleasantlife - one that compares favourably withother world cities

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 August, 2012, 10:56am

Over the past 30 years, the harbour has shrunk, towers have soared and towns have been raised from mudflats in the New Territories.

But one thing has remained unchanged. The streets in the older urban areas are still clogged with boiling, smoke-belching traffic jams that achieve nothing but frayed tempers. Queen's Road Central is still in semi-permanent gridlock and pedestrians scurry along the narrow footpaths of Hennessy Road and Queen's Road East like rats in a gutter with nary a public seat to be seen. A sign on a railing in Wan Chai says it all. Showing a pedestrian being run down by a driverless car, it shouts: "Be careful when crossing the road".

The message is clear: motor vehicles rule and pedestrians are just an inconvenience. You can see where the power lies when the non-car-owning population, that is, 95per cent of us, is forced into about 20per cent of the public space, based on one comparison of the widths of road and foot path.

Considering that car owners are also pedestrians , some if not most of the time, the condition of the pedestrian environment affects the entire population. Other "world cities" have been forging ahead with pedestrianisation and traffic calming, a process of slowing down traffic - Copenhagen 60 years ago, London's Carnaby Street 50 years ago, and New York's "World Class Streets" initiative in the past five years.

Here, there have been some promising starts. Nathan Road south of Haiphong Road was reduced from six lanes to four, allowing footpaths to be widened, and trees planted in the pavements and road divider. The southern end of Paterson Street was closed to traffic and the footpaths widened along Great George Street in Causeway Bay. Unfortunately, what looked like the beginning of a complete overhaul of our older streets seems to have petered out and been forgotten.

Interestingly, when very large numbers of people have to be moved quickly, efficiently and safely, to see the Lunar New Year fireworks for example, the nearby streets are closed to vehicular traffic.

Although the traffic is frequently crawling slower than the pedestrians, the roads are made for speeding when clear. It is common to see vehicles barrelling along Queen's Road East at 80km/h or more when they have the chance. The impact on a pedestrian will be fatal at such speeds and street design that permits this is totally unacceptable in such a dense built-up area.

The concrete canyons of the older urban areas are tailor-made to maximise kerbside pollution. Conversely, walking and cycling will boost public health.

Reducing the number and speed of vehicles is the obvious solution. On-street parking should be eliminated and access permitted for bona fide deliveries only, rather than allowing people-carriers to block the roads with their idling engines. There is more than enough off-street parking to cater for them.

Removing unnecessary traffic will improve access for emergency and public transport vehicles.

Creating an environment that is friendly to children, the elderly and disabled is an obligation. If Hong Kong wants to attract and retain top talent, then the city environment needs to be "family-friendly".

An improvement in pedestrian access can have significant commercial benefits. The Mid-Levels escalator gave rise to a spectacular increase in commercial activity in previously non-existent SoHo, thanks to the revitalised street life.

Anybody stuck in a traffic jam knows about wasted time, but what about the cumulative time wasted by pedestrians obstructed by vehicles?

Better paving, more seats, more trees, more artworks, improved lighting, fewer signs and railings are other self-evident benefits.

What is needed is a complete change in priorities when it comes to the design of the street. At present, private vehicles are top priority, with public transport, pedestrians and bicycles in descending order of importance.

By turning this upside down, putting pedestrians first, followed by bicycles, public transport and lastly private vehicles, the city can be transformed. This means implementing simple traffic calming measures that are accepted practice in most developed cities, including footpath widening and speed humps. Instead of designing carriageways to maximise vehicle speeds, corners are made sharper, lanes are narrowed and vehicle access controlled by bollards, trees and planters.

Now that billions have been spent on building the new underground Central-Wan Chai Bypass, where is the benefit to the walking public? Make Queen's Road, where Hong Kong's modern history started 170 years ago, the focus of a pedestrian and bicycle priority area and put the heart back into the city.

There is a tremendous potential benefit here for government: it would be an immediate, visible and technically easy way to improve the everyday experience for a huge number of residents and visitors.

Since change to the streets affects practically every transportation mode, utility and government department, leadership is the critical issue here - Mayor Michael Bloomberg pushed for comparable improvements in New York, Ken Livingstone in London, Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore.

Can anyone do the same for our urban streets, C.Y.?

Gavin Coates has worked in Hong Kong as a landscape architect and illustrator since 1982