City Weekend

Why should Hong Kong be more walkable? Environmentalists and tour groups spell out the reasons

Proponents of more pedestrian-friendly streets tout health benefits and business opportunities of reducing city’s ‘alarming’ number of cars

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 January, 2018, 11:47am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 January, 2018, 12:20pm

Hong Kong’s car-oriented roads are designed for an “alarming” number of vehicles, prevent people from walking, and worsen hazardous air pollution and public health, environmentalists have warned.

Those who tout walking as a mode of transport argue there should be more car-free areas and describe the city as still in its infancy in promoting urban walkability when compared with Western cities such as London, where policymakers recently set out a “healthy streets approach”.

The sluggish pace of progress and officials’ awareness of the importance of pleasure walking comes, advocates say, despite Hongkongers being more aware than ever of the sundry benefits of pedestrianising traffic areas.

“Hong Kong is very car-centric in terms of transport planning and traffic management,” says Simon Ng Ka-wing, a fellow at public policy think tank Civic Exchange. “Motorists are given priority over pedestrians.”

And although 90 per cent of Hong Kong’s motorised trips are made on public transport, the number of cars is growing at an “alarming rate” in recent years, says Ng, who is the co-author of Global Cities: Urban Environments in Los Angeles, Hong Kong, and China. He believes Hong Kong’s long-established reliance on vehicles is a major obstacle in becoming a world-class walkable city.

Transport Department data from last October showed there were 763,294 licensed vehicles in the city, an increase of 2.9 per cent compared with the same month in 2016.

Markus Shaw, chairman of Walk DVRC, an NGO seeking to pedestrianise Des Voeux Road Central in Hong Kong’s main business district, says people usually connect civilisation with cars and roads but that “real civilisation is about human interactions”.

“In the past, where government thought about pedestrianisation, it thought in terms of efficiency and connectivity and not in terms ... of enjoyment and pleasure walking,” Shaw says

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“This whole aspect of the pleasure of walking is something I don’t think the government has really understood yet.”

Blue sky and green transport

When a yellowish smog blanketed Hong Kong last Monday, the pollution levels posed a serious risk to people’s heath for the second time in just five days.

The Environmental Protection Department said in parts of urban areas and on roadsides, nitrogen dioxide was forming because of a high level of ozone, which was the main culprit behind the air quality’s deterioration to a serious degree.

The department said the city was having a hazy day with light winds and that weather had caused a build-up of air pollutants.

Ng believes walking could replace some of the journeys made by cars, especially over short distances. And by reducing vehicular traffic and the use of fuel and energy, Hong Kong would then see more blue skies.

Echoing his views, Winnie Tang Shuk-ming, an honorary professor at the University of Hong Kong’s department of computer science, says the city should look to Copenhagen as an example of building more cycling tracks to encourage green transport.

She cites the ongoing local project of the 60km cycling track linking Ma On Shan and Tuen Mun as a good start. Tang believes it would be better if officials could develop additional tracks to connect most districts.

Public health and urban design

With one in six Hongkongers suffering from a diagnosable mental health illness, public health specialist Layla McCay says walking can encourage physical activity as well as help stave off a variety of mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.

McCay, director of the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health,an international think tank, was recently in town as a research fellow in mental health and urban design at the University of Hong Kong’s Asia Global Institute. She says walkability can be used as “a marker of a place where it is nice to live”.

Walking brings us into contact with people, which can encourage socialising
Layla McCay, HKU Asia Global Institute

Walkability takes you toplaces where you want to be, rather than places you want to pass through, she adds.

During her three-month stay in Hong Kong, the London-based McCay found the city was much more walkable than its population tend to think, although she identified many deterrents, such as discontinuous pavements, a lack of shade and heavy traffic.

McCay says the situation in Hong Kong could be improved by reducing the predominance of cars on roads, andsetting up more car-free zones.

“Walking brings us into contact with people, which can encourage socialising and reduce the risk of loneliness and depression.”

Walking tours and money matters

Stephen Pratt, assistant professor of Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s school of hotel and tourism management, is among those who see extra benefits to walking.

“One of the strengths of Hong Kong is being a shoppers’ paradise,” Pratt says. “But that’s starting to change.”

And that’s exactly why Hong Kong Free Tours tried to inject something new in the tourism landscape when it launched in August 2016.

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The group aims to provide “unconventional” travel experiences by bringing visitors to less touristy places such as Sham Shui Po and showing a side of the city not traditionally highlighted in brochures. Hong Kong Free Tours shines a spotlight on local social problems, such as the harsh reality of caged homes.

Pratt observes that more and more self-guided walking tours have emerged in the local tourism sector, offering a stark and interesting alternative for adventurous tourists.

He says it is hard to pin down in tourism dollars what these tours have brought in. But he contends walking tours are a “global trend” and a suitable walkable environment could help this offering thrive.

A 2016 report by Civic Exchange cited a pedestrianisation project on 42nd Street in New York as an example. It found that creating a more walkable environment and attracting a larger pedestrian flow would boost opportunities for commercial activities as well as employment.

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The New York project is expected to increase pedestrian flow by 35 per cent, meaning a net profit of US$358 million for businesses in the area.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s retail sector is primarily driven by public transport, with walking trailing distantly.

Heritage appreciation and social inclusion

Local history researcher Ko Tim-keung states that many historical buildings in Wan Chai on Hong Kong Island and their counterparts in Sham Shui Po and Yau Ma Tei in Kowloon are located in “very congested” urban settings. Their relative inconvenience discourages people from slowing down to appreciate them.

“For a long time, our idea of heritage preservation was to preserve and protect the more spectacular historical buildings, such as temples,” Ko says. “But to me, it’s equally important to take care of the lesser known ones, such as tenements.

Global study on walking puts Hong Kong a step ahead

“To extend the roads and streets for pedestrians, one would need the cooperation of the government and shopkeepers.”

Shaw of Walk DVRC agrees, and says some heritage areas still standing in Central were built with pedestrians in mind.

He stresses the importance of keeping these areas alive because they embody “all the values that we are trying to bring back into urban planning”. He adds that pedestrian-friendly neighbourhoods create a greater number of social interactions, too.

“People in cars cannot interact with one another,” he says with a smile.

Want to do your bit and help turn Hong Kong into a world-class walkable city? Here are a few ideas:

Become a walking champion in your community or neighbourhood by taking walks with colleagues at lunch time, going on a walking date with a friend, or setting aside time for a walk on the family schedule after dinner.

Lead a walking tour. The Walk DVRC project is trying to promote this as one of the most direct ways for people to appreciate Hong Kong’s historic Central business district. It’s also a good way to preserve the city’s heritage and support the local economy.

Volunteer for non-profit walking groups to support safe and convenient places to walk. DVRC Friends is a group of passionate volunteers of diverse professional backgrounds who are keen to help realise Walk DVRC’s initiative.

Incorporate walking into your daily life by getting a few steps in early in your day, by walking to work instead of taking a bus, for example. It is also worth exploring to see whether you can complete any of your errands by just walking or by walking part of the way and taking public transport for the rest of the journey.

Help clean up your neighbourhood to get more people interested in walks in the area.

Join an advisory body or NGO that pushes for walkability. This is one of the best ways to show your support, especially if you are an urban planning professional.

Additional reporting by Laurie Chen