Lift plan a step forward for Hong Kong

Christine Loh applauds the plan to install lifts on our streets, and says we should press officials to do even more to make walking easier

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 August, 2012, 3:08am

Walking unobstructed in the city should be a government policy goal. There is a strong case for catering to pedestrians because it significantly improves a community's quality of life.

It comes as a surprise, then, that the chief executive's plans to build lifts at footbridges and pedestrian subways have been criticised.

For example, some said the announcement should have been made by a lower-ranking official and that the chief executive did so because he wanted to improve his popularity, while others said the chief executive made a beeline for an easy win when he should have proposed bigger policies. Yet others said the money should be spent on other social services.

By seeing Hong Kong's chief executive as the equivalent of a mayor of a major city, it was perfectly proper for him to announce - after a walkabout - that the government would spend HK$1billion over three years to build lifts to ease walking in Hong Kong streets. This is what mayors do around the world. The fact that the policy is seen as popular should not be a reason to criticise him for making the commitment. After all, we want our political leaders to do the right thing, big or small - and by all means pick the low-hanging fruit.

Hong Kong can easily afford to spend this sum, plus much more on other social services. People are justified to demand that the new government deal with such things as the long waiting time for subsidised elderly nursing home places and improve dementia services, but they should not just speak up for their pet topics and deny other areas of need.

The proposed lifts will ease daily walking for thousands of pedestrians - the elderly, pregnant women and those pushing a pram, children, people with disabilities, and people carrying things.

Those who care about achieving greater social equity in Hong Kong should not forget that district-level improvements, such as making it easier for people to get around the city on foot, are one of the fastest and most effective ways to help the disadvantaged. To eradicate poverty and improve the city's low-income housing stock are tough, long-term challenges; it is much easier to improve pedestrian access, which would benefit the disadvantaged among us the most.

Good urban design and some thoughtfulness for people who get around the city on foot create a more pleasant neighbourhood for everyone. And this contributes to social cohesion and conviviality.

Next, the chief executive and his administration should ensure that the elevators installed are of good quality, well-designed and can blend in with our pavements and streets. Indeed, critics who press the government for big ideas would do well to demand officials continue to improve walking in the city.

Hong Kong has good potential for unobstructed walking. People will be encouraged to walk more and farther if the experience is more pleasant. The real barrier is Hong Kong's habit of giving priority to vehicles. To greatly improve the ease of walking in our streets, we will need to re-imagine what the city can be like when people, their health and street-level activities are given much greater weight.

Christine Loh Kung-wai is chief executive of the think tank Civic Exchange.