Hong Kong takes baby steps towards becoming a walkable city
Maura Wong is heartened by the pledge announced in the chief executive’s policy address to ensure our urban planning is pedestrian friendly
Hong Kong is a walking city, where the great majority of people use a combination of public transport and their own two feet to get around. Private car ownership is relatively low, which is why it is important for our government to take pedestrians into account while planning big-budget infrastructure and development projects.
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s swansong policy address on Wednesday was big on being big. It focused on ambitious, bricks-and-mortar development – particularly housing, roads and rail.
Leung highlighted mega projects like the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge, which will be the longest bridge/sea tunnel crossing in the world, to be connected to a Hong Kong Link Road. The bridge promises to bring trade and tourism into Hong Kong – but, inevitably, also more cars, trucks and roadside pollution. The address mentioned an eye-popping number of roads. The feasibility of a new strategic route linking northwestern New Territories with the urban areas – Route 11 – will be studied. Also in the works are the Central-Wan Chai bypass, the Tseung Kwan O-Lam Tin tunnel, the Chek Lap Kok-Tuen Mun link and the Island Eastern Corridor link. (“Link” may soon replace “hub” as the government’s favourite word.) Leung said that, some day, a Central Kowloon route will get drivers from West Kowloon to Kowloon Bay in five minutes during rush hour.
Housing, transport and economic development are obviously important. But before the government spends billions on more concrete and asphalt, it should be cautioned against falling back on an outdated mode of urban planning that focuses only on hardware – mostly for vehicles – while ignoring the software that makes life bearable for the average person on the pavement. If we are not careful, an increase in roads may bring more cars, less space for pedestrians, and even worse air pollution in an already smoggy city.
The chief executive showed a glimpse of a new way of thinking about urban design, as this year’s policy address mentioned walking and walkability more than before. Leung called walking an “integral part of Hong Kong as a sustainable city”, and encouraged less reliance on vehicles. He even went into some detail, like future studies on covered walkways or building more hillside escalators – similar to the popular Mid-Levels escalator, which carries 85,000 people up and down through SoHo daily. His thoughts on making Hong Kong a “smart city” included an initiative to use public data to study and promote better pedestrian and vehicle traffic flow.
As we know, nothing much gets done unless somebody is tasked with doing it. This is why, during the December launch of our Walkability initiative, Civic Exchange called on the Transport Department to recognise walking as a form of transport. So it was heartening to hear the chief executive give the Transport and Housing Bureau the job of making walkability happen along four themes – making walking smart, connected, enjoyable and safe in Hong Kong.
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Less encouraging was the chief executive’s feeling that it was “premature” to establish a statutory Harbourfront Authority to oversee linking up pedestrian areas along Victoria Harbour’s two iconic waterfronts. While the government is already working with the Harbourfront Commission, an advisory body, it is time that we had a body with actual authority over the two popular spots for walking.
What’s most important is what happens after this address, and in the next administration.
Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, a front runner in the chief execute race, prominently addressed the issue when she was still chief secretary. In October, she delivered the opening speech at the Walk21 Hong Kong Conference, which Civic Exchange hosted. “As the world’s skyscraper city, characterised by high pedestrian flows, heavy traffic ... Hong Kong is faced with the challenge of making our city more walkable,” she said at the time.
It will be interesting to see what the other contenders like John Tsang Chun-wah and Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee have to say about the issue.
Maura Wong is CEO of Civic Exchange