Expanding pedestrian zones can solve Hong Kong’s congestion and air pollution problems
Hong Kong has earned a reputation as an international city with high living standards. However, it continues to be affected by high air pollution levels, congestion, and an overall lack of space. Property consultant Knight Frank suggests that expanding the tram network and pedestrianisation can solve this.
According to the Government, trams provide frequent and affordable services without roadside emissions on Hong Kong Island for approximately 180,000 passengers per day. While only a small portion of the population, many are in the city’s lowest income group. Trams are primarily used for their practical value. The tramway system in Hong Kong began in the early 1900s. After more than 110 years of service, there are now 163 tramcars in Hong Kong, making it the world’s largest double-deck tram fleet still in operation.
Though seen as part of Hong Kong’s heritage, trams can be recognised as transportation for the future. New tram networks have been developed to great success all over Europe, as well as in major Chinese cities such as Shenyang, Suzhou, Beijing, Nanking, and Shenzhen. Hong Kong’s latest tramcars use aluminium for their structure, making them lighter and more durable. This improves energy efficiency. The new engines save up to 25 per cent of energy compared with older engines, with safety improvements added as well. Less noise is generated for more passenger comfort.
As for congestion, new roads won’t work. In fact, evidence shows that taking roads away is what increases quality of life in congested areas without causing traffic problems. Overseas cases demonstrate that 20 per cent to 60 per cent of traffic disappeared where roads were closed or traffic capacity reduced. More significantly, closures did not result in rerouting of traffic as in liquid form, but contracted as if traffic behaved as gas. Fifty years of successful pedestrianisation schemes in Europe show that significant amounts of traffic do not reappear after road closure. A more liveable and sustainable environment is created instead.
Hong Kong’s current vehicular pattern in Central is not sustainable. One might assume that pedestrianisation of a major road in Central will aggravate traffic conditions in the rest of the Central Business District, but the Occupy Central Movement proved the opposite. Commuters used more environmentally friendly modes of transport such as the MTR, bicycles or even walking instead.
Road transport and its associated emissions are major causes of environmental degradation in central urban areas. Transportation policy is therefore crucial for addressing public health concerns by improving air quality and reducing greenhouse gas emission. Pedestrianisation is shown to positively impact environmental conditions in core urban areas.
In 2009, a portion of Broadway in New York City was pedestrianised for 6 months. Pollutants closely related to traffic emissions including nitric oxide (NO) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) decreased by 63 per cent and 41 per cent respectively. Urban planners and environmental engineers were astounded. As a result of this success, the city government plans to expand the pedestrianised zone and create a permanent zone throughout Broadway.
Hong Kong’s Occupy Central Movement proved a link between roadside emission and the city’s air pollution. It also proved that pedestrianisation would significantly improve air quality. An air quality monitoring station at the Charter Road and Des Voeux Road Central junction recorded levels of 10/10 Air Quality Health Index before the Occupy Central Movement, and improved to 3/10 only three days into the movement. Clean Air Network measurements recorded an average PM2.5 level of 18 micrograms/m3 during the movement, which is far below World Health Organisation’s maximum safe standard of 25.
Studies also show positive economic returns from upgrading pedestrian infrastructure. Benefits include increased retail turnover, rental income and occupancy rate. Pedestrians can shop and view shop-windows more without vehicle safety concerns. Cities with pedestrianised districts attract tourists thanks to lower pollution, pleasant walking environments and amenities such as sidewalk cafes, fountains or other street furniture. These districts become popular destinations for the general public.
In New York, the provision of protected bike lanes at Union Square North led to a 49 per cent decrease in commercial vacancy rates. In Freiburg, Germany, the city centre has remained open only to pedestrians, trams, buses and cyclists since the 1980s. This enabled tram services to run through the commercial area without delay and become citizens’ preferred means of transport. The local economy also benefited, with rents of centrally located stores becoming among Germany’s highest. Since most of the city centre is a pedestrian area, 23 per cent of travelling in Freiburg is done on foot. In Hong Kong, research showed rental rates increasing by 17 per cent after pedestrian investments.
These types of adjustments, can help the Hong Kong Government’s Transport and Housing Bureau achieve major policy objectives. Objectives include promoting the use of public transport services by improving quality and coordination; effectively managing road use, reducing congestion and promoting safety; and continuously supporting environmental improvement measures in transport-related areas.
Calvin Kan is Planning & Development Executive, Land Advisory Services at Knight Frank