Walk Tall!

Christopher DeWolf: Fight back, pedestrians!

By Christopher DeWolf

Hong Kong should be the best place for foot traffic, except for the fact that it’s not…

Being a pedestrian in Hong Kong should be heaven. We’ve got the world’s most efficient public transportation system. The densest concentration of 7-Elevens. Delicious deep-fried street food. Amazing neon signs that make you feel like you walking through a film set. Paradise, right?

In theory, yes. But in practice, walking in Hong Kong sucks a big fat one. In a city where virtually everyone gets around by foot, we have no rights, no respect and a government that has turned ordinary sidewalks into obstacle courses. We’re paying the price with bad traffic, toxic air and an increasingly unpleasant urban environment. The inconveniences are legion.

Zebra crossings, where pedestrians have right of way, have mostly disappeared, replaced by free-for-all crossings where we’re told to “Look left” or “Look right” and cross at our own risk. Traffic lights are timed to prioritize vehicles, not pedestrians. Then there’s the gray metal fences that line every sidewalk. Instead of keeping pedestrians safe, they make the streets more crowded by eating up valuable sidewalk space. They create bottlenecks at crosswalks by squeezing the flow of pedestrians into narrow gaps in the fences. Worst of all are the fenced-in traffic islands where you are forced to wait like cattle in a holding pen.

And don’t get me started on footbridges and underpasses. Instead of being able to cross the street at grade level, we’re forced to behave like rats in a maze, going up, down, over and around — all so that cars, trucks and buses can speed down streets as if they’re on a freeway. All these hassles exist because vehicles have complete and unquestioned superiority in Hong Kong.

As former Hong Kong Institute of Planners vice-president Pong Yuen-yee put it to me earlier this year: “For a long time now, Hong Kong has been planned for vehicles, not pedestrians. The priority is for vehicular traffic to move smoothly, not to provide a comfortable place for pedestrians to move around.”

It’s easy to see why the government is so focused on keeping cars moving. Even if we don’t drive, we all get around by bus, minibus or taxi at some point, and it does nobody any good if we’re wasting our time stuck in a jam. So keeping traffic moving should be a top priority, right? No, it shouldn’t, because it doesn’t work.

Over the past ten years, the government has closed crosswalks, built new highways and opened new tunnels. And congestion has only gotten worse. Transportation planners call this induced traffic: the more road capacity you

create, the more traffic will increase to fill that capacity. Case in point: the number of car owners in Hong Kong is actually increasing.

Encouraged by new roads, exemptions to the vehicle registration tax and the proliferation of parking garages, more than 10,000 new cars are being added to the roads every year. There are now more than 400,000 privately-owned cars in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, roadside air pollution is getting worse, reaching record-breaking levels this past summer.

The city’s most polluted street is Hennessy Road in Wan Chai, which contains up to 480 micograms of nitrogen dioxide per cubic metre of air, twelve times the level that the World Health Organization considers acceptable. The air in other busy streets is almost as bad. Even if vehicles become cleaner and more fuel-efficient, roadside pollution will still be a problem, because Hong Kong’s streets are so densely-built that they trap pollutants for up to a month, a phenomenon known as the memory effect.

Across the harbor, Nathan Road has a lower traffic volume than the Tolo Highway, but it is three times more polluted, because its tall buildings prevent pollution from being dispersed. The only solution is to reduce the overall amount of traffic by making it easier to be a pedestrian. Instead of trying to ram as much traffic as possible down Hong Kong’s narrow, crowded streets, the government need to make them more comfortable by calming traffic, restoring closed crosswalks and redesigning sidewalks so that there are fewer barriers to pedestrian movement.

Unfortunately, the government is a many-tentacled beast, and its slippery appendages don’t always work to the same end. In the early 2000s, the Planning Department started a widely-acclaimed traffic calming and pedestrianization program in neighbourhoods like Mong Kok and Causeway Bay.

But the Transport Department wasn’t happy about the reduced capacity for cars and trucks, so the program has been stalled. Some pedestrian areas have even been scaled back — the number of pedestrian-only hours on Sai Yeung Choi Street has been reduced. So we have no choice but to put for change. I’m sick of being honked at by taxi drivers and BMW owners because I had the gall to cross the street in front of them.

I can’t stand waiting five minutes on a crowded traffic island so that a few more minibuses can speed through the intersection. Pedestrians need to fight back.

Christopher DeWolf is a writer, photographer and self-styled flâneur.

Read more about Christopher DeWolf

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