Since Hong Kong has a low ratio of vehicles to people, our city should be exceedingly pedestrian-friendly. But taking to our streets on foot can be more frustrating than pleasant. Pavements are narrow and crowded and the shopping precincts that abound in other major cities are few and far between. Overhead walkways, tunnels and iron railings lining roads that are shrouded in traffic noise and exhaust fumes make plain that no matter what the numbers, cars are king.
It was not always like this, nor, little more than a decade ago, was it how authorities envisaged our busy districts to be. For generations, our streets were a place to stroll, socialise and shop. But limited land, population density and rapid retail development started squeezing footpaths, so 12 years ago the Transport Department launched an ambitious plan to turn sections of streets in shopping areas over to pedestrians. Those proposals have been all but forgotten; progress has been at a virtual standstill since 2004.
Worse, some of the laudable efforts that were made have been rolled back - even though pedestrian traffic has dramatically increased due to the influx of mainland shoppers. Vehicles were originally barred from Mong Kok's popular Sai Yeung Choi precinct until midnight, but the ban is now lifted at 11pm. Private car numbers are rising by several percentage points a year and the government is giving sway to them rather than people. Authorities plan to get pedestrians off streets in Causeway Bay with an elaborate series of tunnels and in Mong Kok with bridges.
Streets are the soul of any city. As much as they should be service arteries, they also have to be places along which pedestrians can window shop and people-watch.
Moving them above and below ground to give traffic priority is getting the balance wrong. It is an especially flawed approach for Hong Kong, where pedestrians should be the centre of urban planning, not an afterthought.