Put pedestrians first in Central

Simon Ng says officials should seize the opportunity to transform Central into a people-friendly environment, to improve the air and quality of life

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 May, 2014, 3:49am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 May, 2014, 3:49am

When was the last time you walked along Des Voeux Road Central? Those of us who work in Central probably spend a fair share of our time there every working day, dodging people and obstacles on the crowded pavements.

The road is lined with skyscrapers on both sides, trapping vehicle exhaust fumes in the street canyon, and traffic is typically slow the whole day, not only during rush hour. This is one of the main arteries in Hong Kong's central business district, and it is seriously clogged with traffic, and choking.

When was the last time you actually enjoyed walking along Des Voeux Road Central?

This week, a study led by the Institute of Planners proposed to turn a large section of the road, from Pedder Street to Morrison Street, into a tram and pedestrian precinct. This is not a new idea, as the institute put forward a similar proposal more than 10 years ago to the government, but got nowhere.

Such ideas are not uncommon in other parts of the world, especially in global cities like New York and London, where mayors have reclaimed road space in business districts from polluting vehicles for the benefit of people. The reclaimed road space is shared among motorists, cyclists and pedestrians. Traffic lanes have either been cut back or pedestrianised. Street furniture and other design features have been added to create new and vibrant public spaces for the community. In short, the needs of people are prioritised.

The institute's proposal also offers a much-needed opportunity to improve roadside air quality in Hong Kong.

According to the study, Des Voeux Road Central has consistently recorded much higher concentrations of particulate matter and other gaseous pollutants than Connaught Road Central, despite having only one-tenth of the traffic volume.

That is because Connaught Road Central is wider and there are gaps between buildings on the harbourside, which facilitates the dispersion of air pollutants. With careful planning, traffic diversion from Des Voeux Road Central to Connaught Road Central should bring about net gains in air quality and improve public health in Central.

Given all the benefits, the proposal looks like a no-brainer to the neutrals. Yet it has proved difficult in the past to get a quorum of support from within the government for any plan that cuts across different policy bureaus and poses management challenges to different departments. With vested interests also at stake at the district level, support from the business sector and the district council is equally crucial.

This is exactly the kind of situation where leadership and vision at the very top of government would make a difference. The likes of a West Island Line and a Central-Wan Chai Bypass do not come along often. The opportunities opened up by these projects to upgrade Central into a pedestrian- and business-friendly district are too good to ignore.

In fact, the government has been taking a people-based planning approach in transforming Kowloon East into Hong Kong's second central business district through the creation of a pedestrian-friendly environment, attractive streets, vibrant public spaces and urban greening. It is time for it to energise the first central business district, too.

Simon Ng is chief research officer at Civic Exchange