Pedestrians cross the road in Central in 2020. Other than a slogan of “walk more, ride less”, the latest Smart City Blueprint does not have a tangible proposal to reduce private car ownership and attendant pollution. Photo: Winson Wong
The View
by Dennis Lee
The View
by Dennis Lee

To build Hong Kong into a green, low-traffic city, think beyond technology

  • If quality of life is to be improved and emissions cut, the city must have concrete plans to discourage private car ownership and create pedestrian-friendly neighbourhoods
  • Examples in Europe, including financial hub London, offer ideas that are not restricted to technological solutions

If a city is a living organism, roads and rail are the arteries, and vehicles are the red blood cells that carry oxygen to every tissue. From New York’s gridiron to Paris’ radial concentric city plan, traffic infrastructure is synonymous with urban planning. Streets, bridges, tunnels and subways not only connect different areas within a city, but also define district sizes, neighbourhood blocks and building plots, as well as how we travel and relate to our surroundings.

Out of all the mobility choices, private cars offer the most comfort, choice and freedom. However, with the popularisation of car ownership, such personal freedom comes at a cost, including time lost in traffic deadlock and greenhouse gas emissions from internal combustion engines.
Hong Kong has close to 930,000 registered vehicles, of which more than 70 per cent are private cars, and transport accounts for 18 per cent of the city’s total carbon emissions. Yet, our leaders and lawmakers have never offered thorough solutions that would reduce private car ownership and the attendant pollution, instead putting forward trivial proposals, such as toll charges for high-traffic areas, congestion levies for cross-harbour tunnels and tax concessions for electric vehicles. These skin-deep measures treat the symptoms but not the disease.
Thanks to the advent of electric vehicles, cars running on fossil fuel could become relics in less than a generation. But electric vehicles are a transitional green solution at best. While they free us from petrol dependence, they would not be entirely environmentally responsible until we produce electricity exclusively by renewable means and completely recycle decommissioned lithium-ion batteries. Besides, the transition from fossil-fuel to electric vehicles does not decrease the number of cars on the road.

Since December 2017, the government has published two editions of the Smart City Blueprint, with various hi-tech transport initiatives.

From a free-flow tolling system and an electronic road pricing pilot scheme, to traffic detectors, real-time adaptive traffic signal systems, trials of autonomous vehicles and a real-time parking app, some of the initiatives – if fully implemented – could help motorists avoid congestion, shorten travel times, and offer consumers convenience and data-centric solutions.

Red light is projected onto the pavement as a novel safety warning in Hong Kong on July 7. The device, which is being tested, projects red light onto the ground and pedestrians’ mobile phones to warn them not to cross the road, according to the Transport Department. Photo: EPA-EFE

However, these smart initiatives mainly focus on technological enhancement of the existing road system. Beyond a slogan of “walk more, ride less”, there is no tangible proposal to reduce private car ownership. In the meantime, according to the Hong Kong Energy Policy Simulator, private cars are projected to increase to 840,000 by 2050.

Europeans have been advocating car-free cities for decades. Copenhagen has established the largest car-free zone on the continent with more than 320km of bike lanes. Madrid, Brussels, Oslo, Amsterdam and Ljubljana have restricted or banned cars from their city centres.

Milan, infamous for having the worst traffic congestion in Europe, is compensating people with transport vouchers if they do not drive to work. Parisians who sell their cars can claim benefits to purchase a bicycle, use a car-sharing service or buy a public transit pass. Some European cities are phasing out fossil-fuel cars or providing free public transport on high smog days.

Hong Kong can’t bypass its biggest traffic problem: too many cars

As Bonnie Riva Ras of wrote of the European car-free campaigns: “There doesn’t seem to be any downside as long as there is a corresponding increase in public transportation and bicycle paths.”

Seen in this light, Hong Kong is more than halfway there as we have world-class public transport networks that move 12 million passengers daily. Our mass transit system ranks among the best in the world, and the MTR has been extending lines and adding stations to realise the vision of a “next generation rail”.


Hong Kong railfans flock to take first train of new cross-harbour rail

Hong Kong railfans flock to take first train of new cross-harbour rail

In addition, the 2020-21 budget made a commitment to green transport, including pilot schemes for electric minibuses and ferries. Buses powered by hydrogen fuel cells are to be tested.

Hong Kong is not Europe, of course. We are a high-octane international city with a much faster pace than most European cities, but we can take a page from the playbook of a fellow global financial hub.

Since 2020, London has created about 100 “low traffic neighbourhoods”, under a scheme which reduces through-traffic – vehicles simply passing through neighbourhoods – in residential areas by using road barriers. After the scheme was implemented in Lambeth in south London, there have been 25,000 fewer car journeys daily, and a 40 per cent increase in cycling, riding scooters and walking. London has also enjoyed a 94 per cent reduction in the number of people living in areas with illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide.

In Hong Kong, our objective should not be to eliminate cars, but to reduce through-traffic in neighbourhoods while accommodating destination traffic. By restricting vehicular access to the city centre and building peripheral vertical automated car parks, we can maximise walkable space within each district. We should consider building inter-district bike lanes beyond the New Territories, and legalising powered scooters and skateboards with safety and right-of-way guidelines.


Road test: cycling Hong Kong’s scenic New Territories route after new section completes 60km track

Road test: cycling Hong Kong’s scenic New Territories route after new section completes 60km track

Similar pedestrian-friendly neighbourhoods are gaining traction around the world. Whether they are called a “green network” (like in Hamburg) or a “superblock” (in Barcelona), they share the same aspiration: to improve quality of life and reduce air pollution.

On the Transport Bureau website, Hong Kong’s new transport secretary says the bureau will endeavour to “promote ‘Smart Mobility’” and “foster a pedestrian-friendly environment”. However, we wouldn’t be able to accomplish these missions without making profound changes.

European cities did not go car-free overnight, but after years of trial and error, which sometimes involved collecting data and feedback before wider implementation. Along with the stick of car bans, cites also dangled the carrot of public transport incentives. Being smart is not necessarily being hi-tech, and perhaps the smartest idea could be found among low-tech solutions.

Dennis Lee is a Hong Kong-born, America-licensed architect with 22 years of design experience in the US and China