Hong Kong’s problems with noise and crowds can be eased with more pedestrian zones, not fewer
- Bernard Chan says issues arising in pedestrian zones, such as in Mong Kok, could be relieved by creating more traffic-free areas. In addition to more space and cleaner air, it would give street performers more options and disperse crowds
I enjoyed the second Heritage Vogue street carnival on Hollywood Road in Central a couple of weeks ago. Supported by the government’s heritage office, along with local heritage sites and art galleries, the event features cultural and heritage-related attractions as well as crafts, food and entertainment. As with last year, it was very popular – indeed, the temporarily pedestrianised street was packed with people.
Just a few days after the festival, this newspaper and others reported a proposal to pedestrianise the western part of Des Voeux Road for a “Sheung Wan Fiesta”. This would not be a one-day affair, but would involve pedestrianising the stretch of road for 12 hours a day for a 90-day period next year. The area would host stalls and events on weekends, while, for the rest of the week, it would provide a traffic-free walkable space with seating and greenery.
The proposal comes from Walk DVRC, an NGO made up of planning professionals with a vision to revitalise this part of Central. They have even commissioned research to find out how local businesses feel about the plan. The fact that they are proposing that the arrangement last for several months suggests they see it as potentially permanent.
What are the chances of that happening? At the Heritage Vogue festival, I mentioned to an official that it would be nice to hold such events more often. The response was not very encouraging – it takes a lot of hard work behind the scenes to pedestrianise the street. Bus routes need to be changed, and commercial goods deliveries need to be rescheduled. That’s a lot of bureaucratic effort and transport industry inconvenience for a one-off event lasting less than one day.
The Des Voeux Road proposal assumes that it would be much the same amount of hassle to implement the same arrangements for multiple days, or on a regular or permanent basis.
Elsewhere in Central, Chater Road is pedestrianised on Sundays and public holidays. This arrangement goes back years. It requires some buses to be diverted – but everyone is used to it now, and clearly it doesn’t create any serious problems.
The Transport Department has implemented pedestrianisation schemes in many urban areas. However, most are small. Planning activists sometimes blame bureaucrats for having an anti-pedestrian mindset. But there is a surprising amount of opposition from other stakeholders to cutting streets off to traffic.
The most famous example is Sai Yeung Choi Street in Mong Kok, where a pedestrianisation scheme was started on a daily basis back in 2000. After several years, it was trimmed back to weekends and holidays only. And, last August, it was reopened to traffic full-time.
This followed pressure from the district council and complaints from local businesses and residents about crowding and noise. The pedestrian zone attracted phone salespeople to set up stalls on the street, and – most of all – surprising numbers of musicians and other performers.
It seems strange that, in Hong Kong , street musicians are the problem and traffic is the solution. But there is no doubt that many people in the area found the buskers and other crowding on Sai Yeung Choi Street unbearable. The situation was so bad that one of the main concerns about the Des Voeux Road proposal is the prospect of the pedestrianised area being swamped with street performers.
I wonder if this is looking at the problem the wrong way. The problem isn’t that we have too many pedestrian zones, but not enough. This was probably one reason Hollywood Road was so crowded for the Heritage Vogue day. If we had more traffic-free zones more of the time, they would not be novelties that attracted huge crowds; they would be a normal part of the urban environment.
Traffic-free streets with cleaner air and space for greenery and seating should not be a rare luxury. Other world cities are moving in this direction.
Hong Kong has many advantages over other cities in Greater China and Asia as a whole. But we also face challenges to our competitiveness – and one of them is quality of life. Pedestrian zones are not exactly rocket science, and they make our urban environment and lives noticeably better. It could be that, if we are bolder about this, the benefits would be far more obvious, and opposition – like gatherings of buskers – would fade away.
Bernard Chan is convenor of Hong Kong’s Executive Council