HONG KONG -- Hong Kong is thought of as a city that works. Deliveries arrive at agreed-upon times. Subway trains stop at stations soundlessly and leave them without fuss. Its free market even pushes the economy and its humans to move faster.
But while the city has embraced rapid modernization and prides itself on efficiency, decades of development designed under these principles have taken out the everyday enjoyment of neighborhoods.
Walking is a frustrating exercise of squeezing through crowds, avoiding sign posts, balancing on curbs, crossing the streets through a cloud of exhaust and finding a safe moment to walk on the edge of the road. In downtown areas, sidewalks are narrow strips edging perhaps four lanes of traffic. And railings often set along the sidewalks -- considered unnecessary by many urban designers -- intrude nearly a foot into what is already a maddening shortage of walking space.
“There’s a large capacity, and there’s not enough attention paid to the pedestrian experience,” said Melissa Case Christ, the head of the architecture department at the University of Hong Kong.
“I think that the idea is about trying to be efficient with flow. So the government has done a fairly good job in saying we want to increase public transport. Hong Kong is very proud of the fact that 95 percent of the people use public transport on a very regular basis,” she said.
While efficient transportation keeps the city moving, the Transportation Department has also begun an initiative of "pedestrianization," which enhances selected streets for the pedestrian experience. Among the factors it considers in choosing these streets are whether it would improve safety and whether there are businesses in the vicinity that would attract foot traffic, including tourists.
But one feature of pedestrian activity is that it is not even on the street level. A case in point is in a new highway going up along Hong Kong’s waterfront, a huge undertaking that will help vehicles zip through some of the most crowded parts of the city. But for anyone looking to stroll along the harbor there, they will have to reach the area by walking on a network of elevated walkways while cars zoom by below.
The growing trend of elevating pedestrians makes sense at first glance, Case Christ said, but it actually ends up moving pedestrians away from the rest of the urban area.
“And it also creates a difficulty especially for people with any kind of disability because you have to walk upstairs, walk downstairs. And the ability to actually go from place to place becomes more difficult because you can’t actually access it from the ground.”
On the ground level, pedestrians also seem to be separated from traffic with miles of railings. This kind of segregation is considered outdated, considering how places like London have used greater integration of pedestrians and traffic to improve streets.
At a recent conference titled “Walkable Cities, Living Streets,” Neil Adams, a traffic engineer, used London’s project in Piccadilly Circus as a case study to look at ways Hong Kong could improve its environment for pedestrians. The overhaul saw the widening of sidewalks, removal of unnecessary sign posts and changing one-way roads to flow in both directions.
One simple solution for Hong Kong, which has been a popular campaign in Britain, was to remove those pesky railings all along the sidewalks.
“Research in the UK by the University of South Hampton established that taking all guard rails away from junctions has no impact on pedestrian safety whatsoever,” Adams said. “It also means that they’re not confined to a very narrow crossing point.”
When it comes to retroactively altering infrastructure built decades ago, the task could seem daunting. But Case Christ says if something is made a priority, then there is a way to accomplish it.
“Through creative site-specific planning, and applying a generalized standard -- like the sidewalk needs to be at least 1.5 meters wide -- we could identify those problem areas and work to try to make those changes happen.”
She also advocates adopting a scheme used in Seattle that allows residents to initiate small projects to improve their neighborhoods and apply for funding from the government. This way, the government is unburdened by some of the coordination and planning responsibilities, and more work can be accomplished.
“There’s a whole list of projects they’ve done like that that have made smaller improvements,” she said.