Traffic banished from stretch of one of Hong Kong’s busiest roads in unique experiment

Car-choked thoroughfare gives way to a relaxed area with picnic tables, beanbag chairs, musicians and space for children to play

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 September, 2016, 9:49pm
UPDATED : Monday, 26 September, 2016, 10:55am

A stretch of one of the busiest roads in the heart of Hong Kong’s business district was closed off to cars and buses for six hours on Sunday in an unprecedented social and environmental experiment on the use of public space and city planning.

Except for trams and people, the 200-metre swathe of Des Voeux Road Central was cleared of all vehicles from 10am to 4pm, turning the relentlessly busy thoroughfare into a relaxed, open public space stretching from the Wing On Department store to Western Market.

The atmosphere was carnival-like. Picnic tables and benches lined the road. Musicians took to the streets performing to audiences lounging in beanbag chairs. Pet owners roamed around freely with their dogs. Children sat around in circles for story time, arts and crafts, and played around in splash pools, while three-a-side soccer matches were held in roadsides turned into makeshift pitches.

Patrick Fung Kin-wai of the Clean Air Network, one of the co-organising groups behind the “Very DVRC” event, said pedestrianisation not only helped improve air quality in the neighbourhood, it also freed up a lot of public space for creative uses.

This is what you would call ‘people-first’ planning
Patrick Fung Kin-wai, Clean Air Network

“This is what you would call ‘people-first’ planning,” he said, citing the example of New York City’s High Line, an urban park built on a disused elevated railroad.

Fung said the idea was a scaled-down version of their ultimate target – to get the entire stretch from Central to Western permanently rezoned as a tram and pedestrian-only thoroughfare, as conceptualised by the Institute of Planners 16 years ago.

While this was just a one-off event, Fung expressed hope the government would build on the success of the experiment and consider pedestrianising Des Voeux Road Central, or even other roads, more frequently.

The plan has the support of at least some government officials. Deputy director of planning Raymond Lee Kai-wing, who took part in conceptualising the idea with the institute before he joined government, said: “I hope [yesterday’s] experiment is just the start and that we’ll continue to have more experiments and create more of the impossible.”

Fung said the next step of the campaign was to gauge the opinions of stakeholders in the district. “The idea this time was to gauge the public’s reaction. The plan is to get people in the neighbourhood used to such arrangements.”

Some 2,000 to 3,000 people were estimated to have turned up for the event, excluding regular pedestrians and passers-by.

Reactions from locals the Post spoke to were mixed. Jacqueline Leung, who has worked and lived in the Sheung Wan area for nearly 20 years, said any plan to improve air quality was welcome but a more “realistic” balance was needed for any long-term plan.

“It’s pointless if they only do it for [Des Voeux Road Central] but the traffic problem is moved somewhere else,” she said. “Where would the shops and restaurants unload their goods?”

More than 20 Citybus and First Bus routes were affected by the experiment.

Simon Lam, proprietor of Moon Yee Jewellery and Jade at the western end of the road, welcomed the idea as it would increase the flow of people past his shop. “Of course more people walking around is a good thing, but whether they’ll actually consume is a difficult question,” he said. “It’s too early to tell.”

Angel Yiu, a shop assistant at a women’s fashion store, had doubts that pedestrianised streets would mean more business. She pointed out that such moves usually attracted curious crowds and revellers rather than customers looking for goods to buy.

According to a Civic Exchange and City University study, air pollution in the concrete canyon of Des Voeux Road Central is worse than that at Connaught Road Central and Queen’s Road Central, despite its lower traffic flow. About 4,000 to 8,000 pedestrians use the thoroughfare each hour under such unhealthy conditions.