Hong Kong should put pedestrians first, not cars – driverless or otherwise
Oren Tatcher is glad Hong Kong is not rushing to embrace the trend of automated vehicles, as their introduction is likely to reinforce the lamentable segregation of people and vehicles in the city’s urban planning
Strict regulations may force the first driverless vehicle built in Hong Kong – developed by Professor Liu Ming and his students at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology – to have its road tests in Shenzhen, the Post reported recently. The Transport Department apparently may not grant the team permission to test the vehicle on our busy streets.
The world is abuzz with talk about driverless cars. From academic symposiums to dinner tables, there is palpable excitement about technology ridding humanity of the scourges of traffic congestion and fatal accidents. Set against that, many would probably see the Transport Department’s response as yet another case of our bureaucrats’ knee-jerk conservatism and resistance to innovation, and perhaps this is indeed the case. But, given the unthinking red-carpet reception driverless vehicles have been getting from many municipalities around the world, our own government’s reticence may be lauded in this particular case.
According to Professor Liu, “Hong Kong’s traffic situation is perfect for autonomous vehicles because roads are marked and separated clearly.” He is spot on: with pedestrian bridges, subways and fenced-off footpaths, Hong Kong is primed for the kind of vehicle/people separation that the promoters of driverless cars can only dream of in more pedestrian-friendly cities such as San Francisco, Paris or Tokyo. Ironically, it is probably precisely the habit of enforcing this relentless separation – ostensibly in the name of safety, but really to maximise the flow of traffic – which stopped Transport Department officials from granting Professor Liu and his team the testing licence. One imagines that, in their minds, our city’s intrepid pedestrians are not yet sufficiently fenced off from the carriageway to allow them to interact with computer-guided vehicles.
With billions being spent on research and development – from Shenzhen to Detroit, Yokohama to Stuttgart – one could be forgiven for believing that the widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles is just around the corner, so we had better get on with the programme. Of course, many have sounded words of caution, commenting on the regulatory hurdles, in particular the sticky issue of assigning liability in the case of incidents. One also wonders how the lengthy transition period, when roads are simultaneously occupied by vehicles driven by people and autonomous ones, will be handled, assuming any number of potentially deadly scenarios when human fickleness (or resourcefulness) comes up against cold algorithms.
Watch: Singapore’s first test centre for autonomous vehicles
But perhaps the most overlooked concern about driverless vehicles is the impact they could have on our cities. The problem is simple enough: a car, even without a driver, is still a big hunk of metal moving in public space; to achieve any meaningful standards of speed, efficiency and safety, driverless cars want to minimise as much as possible any interaction with those unpredictable and fragile creatures called pedestrians and cyclists. For that, the more physical separation, the better, ideally in the form of pedestrian bridges, subways, and extensive fencing of pedestrian zones. One can imagine future cities where certain arteries become rivers of autonomous vehicles, with a parallel but non-intersecting system of “people spaces”.
Whether you think of such a cityscape as utopian or dystopian, the idea is hardly new. Indeed, the late, great Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier must be laughing in his grave: his 1920s Ville Radieuse concept envisioned just such a city, where people lived in residential slabs connected by bridges floating above 16-lane roads. While the cars in his evocative sketches were presumably driven by humans, one imagines that the young architect, who defined modern houses as “machines for living”, would be perfectly comfortable with the idea of self-driving cars. Mid-century planners, inspired by Le Corbusier, went on to prescribe urban developments shaped around cars and their strict separation from people, causing enormous damage to the urban fabric and continuity of traditional cities all over the world, and ultimately leading to the backlash of anti-highway movements in the West.
Here in Hong Kong, unfortunately, this mid-century mindset lives on, and still underpins urban planning and development. It is evident not just in those fenced-off sidewalks, but in our disjointed cityscape of satellite enclaves built around shopping malls and transport hubs, restricting pedestrians to the podium level while surrendering the ground level to the near-exclusive use of motorised transport. Recent acknowledgements by the Hong Kong government of the need to improve on this pattern, in the form of various “walkability” initiatives, are both welcome and long overdue. But there is a real risk that driverless car advocates like Professor Liu will manage to steer our tech-eager government back to the old paradigm of total separation.
Having spent many hours recently driving around the traffic-choked San Francisco Bay Area, I understand why Silicon Valley is so obsessed with autonomous vehicles: if you are a driver regularly sitting in traffic, it is an obvious solution to a daily irritation. Ironically, many of the tech expert solved the problem for themselves in recent years by decamping from suburban, car-oriented Silicon Valley to San Francisco, where they can leave the car parked and indulge in the joys of a walkable city.
In a city like Hong Kong, where drivers are a small minority to begin with, autonomous vehicles are a solution to someone else’s problem; they offer no benefit for those riding on a bus or walking on a congested pavement. Perhaps one day, low-speed autonomous capsules, seamlessly integrated in pedestrian-oriented streets, will help shuttle elderly people from MTR stations to their front doors, or children from their homes to school. But let that technology be proven and tested elsewhere, while we focus on solving our own urgent, albeit low-tech, mobility challenge: making Hong Kong more friendly to pedestrians, not cars – with or without drivers.
Oren Tatcher is an architect and a member of the Hong Kong Institute of Urban Design