To help prevent transmission of the novel coronavirus, the Hong Kong government officially recommends keeping a 1.5 metre distance with other people.
Good luck with that.
Despite the global pandemic and a virus that stubbornly refuses to disappear—the last new case of local transmission was on May 13—Hong Kong’s streets are as crowded as ever. Nearly everyone is wearing a mask, but they are far too close for comfort, at least in the eyes of health experts.
Hong Kong is far from alone in that regard. As cities around the world ease their lockdowns, they are finding that their streets just don’t have enough room for people to go about their daily lives while maintaining physical distance. So they are making room. In recent weeks, Paris has created 650 kilometres of “corona cycleways” that allow people to get around while avoiding public transport. New York is banning cars from 160 kilometres of streets in order to give pedestrians enough space. And London recently announced that nearly all central neighbourhoods will be made car-free.
Hong Kong is more tightly packed than all three of those cities but there have been no plans to give pedestrians more space. There hasn’t even been much of a discussion of it.
“If you look at the pavements all over Hong Kong, especially in the urban area like Central, Wan Chai, Causeway Bay, Mongkok – most of the pavement is substandard. Keeping a distance of 1.5 metres from each other is almost impossible even at a time [when most people are working from home],” says Pong Yuen-yee, former vice-president of the Hong Kong Institute of Urban Planners.
“The problem is planning in Hong Kong has always been done with vehicular traffic in mind,” she says. “Although some efforts have been made to improve walkability, the government is only trying to catch up with other international cities.”
But there is still hope. For years, activists have been pushing to banish most vehicles from Des Voeux Road Central in order to create a comfortable space for pedestrians and trams. Now they have fresh wind in their sails. “We’re making good progress, believe it or not,” says Jennifer Walker Frisinger, CEO of Walk DVRC, the non-profit group that is pushing for the transformation.
The reason isn’t exactly what you would expect. Rather than the pandemic, it was a change in political leadership that is allowing the project to heat up from the low simmer it has been on since it was announced five years ago. The landslide victory of pro-democracy candidates in the November 2019 local elections has brought a group of fresh faces to the Central and Western District Council, which needs to approve the DVRC initiative before it can go ahead.
“I would call it a sea change in attitudes,” says Markus Shaw, chair of the Walk DVRC board. “With the previous District Council, which was dominated by the pro-establishment parties, we found it extremely difficult to get [them] at least to listen to what we were proposing. But with this new District Council they are more than listening. They are very much more than willing to consider the benefits of what we are proposing.”
Walker Frisinger attributes it not necessarily to the political ideology of the new councillors but to the fact that most of them are young. “I think young people in general are looking for a different urban planning model than their forebears had,” she says. “They’re not as interested in cars and they’re looking for urban planning that values people. They’re looking for neighbourhood experiences and social interaction.”
Walk DVRC’s proponents say the project is a perfect opportunity to do that. “Hong Kong is hurting, with the protests and now the virus,” says Walker Frisinger. “There’s a need to give back and soothe in a way that isn’t political. We want a community improvement zone that is inclusive to different demographics – the elderly, people who need to bring strollers, people who are pushing cartons.”
That’s a drastically different approach to what currently exists on Des Voeux Road Central, or for that matter on many of Hong Kong’s congested streets. When trams round the corner of the Western Market, they enter a concrete canyon where thousands of pedestrians jostle for space along narrow sidewalks, penned in at many spots by roadside fences. Two lanes of traffic flank each side of the tramway and often overlap with it, which means that when buses, trucks and cars get jammed, so does the tram. It’s noisy, polluted and deeply unpleasant.
Walker Frisinger says it’s a symptom of a much larger problem: the poor experience of being a pedestrian in Hong Kong, whether it’s due to overcrowded sidewalks or footbridges and subways that force pedestrians to make constant detours. “You can get from point A to point B, but it’s not a pleasant experience,” she says. “It’s not designed for pedestrians. You have to go up, down, over and around – you see where you want to be but you don’t know how to get there.”
Walk DVRC wants to address those problems by limiting vehicular traffic to just one eastbound lane on Des Voeux Road Central, which would free up the rest of the street for trams, trees, wider sidewalks and public seating areas. The ultimate goal is to transform the entire one-kilometre stretch of road between the Western Market and Pedder Street into a place where people actually want to walk and hang out, but for now, Walk DVRC is concentrating on a 90-day pilot project called Sheung Wan Fiesta, which would focus on the westernmost two blocks of the road, between the market and Hillier Street.
“It’s a proof of concept,” says Walker Frisinger. “We would provide lots of seating and shading, access to free drinking water, things that don’t exist now.”
She says the Central and Western District Council has been receptive to the idea, and if the plan is approved by the council’s transport committee, the pilot project can go ahead by the end of the year. If it’s successful, it could be applied to the whole of Des Voeux Road Central. Then it could spread to other streets and neighbourhoods. “We need time to test and fine-tune it, but we’re hoping this would be a workable model that would be implemented in different parts of Hong Kong,” she says.
This wouldn’t be the first pedestrian street in Hong Kong, of course. There are already a number of car-free streets in Causeway Bay, Jordan, Tsuen Wan, Tai Po and other areas, along with streets that are closed to vehicular traffic at peak hours. The difference, says Walker Frisinger, is that those pedestrian streets are “transport driven and not community driven.” They are closed to traffic simply because the volume of pedestrians is so high, but most of them aren’t necessarily places to linger and enjoy.That raises the spectre of one street that has haunted Walk DVRC since the campaign was launched. Beginning in 2000, vehicular traffic was barred from Sai Yeung Choi Street, a popular Mongkok shopping strip, in evenings and on weekends. At first, it was a huge success, drawing more than 16,000 people per hour. Independent theatre groups and street musicians began staging performances. It was lively and fun – almost carnivalesque.
Then things took a turn for the worse. Touts for mobile phone and internet services began occupying much of the street with advertising placards, but the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department said it was powerless to do anything because the touts weren’t selling a physical product. Then the number of street performers began to multiply. Bands and guitar strummers were replaced by acrobatic performers, mainland China-style “dancing aunties” and massive pay-to-play karaoke booths that seemed to compete with each other to see who could be loudest.
Nearby residents revolted and pressured the local council to end the pedestrianisation scheme and reopen the street to traffic. Today, a weekend on Sai Yeung Choi Street is as crowded as ever, but the din of karaoke has been replaced by car horns and rumbling engines.
“One of the most frequently asked questions we get is what’s going to prevent [DVRC] from becoming another Mongkok,” says Walker Frisinger. Walk DVRC’s answer: management.
“The mistake they made in Mongkok was not to understand that you’ve got to get all other departments involved that have some input on how the street should be managed,” says Shaw. “That was totally ignored. Any pedestrianisation scheme in the future has to be looked at holistically. It involves multiple departments. We have to get away from this unfortunate silo effect we have in government in Hong Kong.”
One problem is there is currently no mechanism for that kind of holistic street management. In most cities, a business improvement association or merchants’ association would be responsible for the day-to-day operations of managing street performers, providing street furniture and organising events. “We’re not reinventing the wheel here,” says Shaw. “There are plenty of examples from around the world where it’s been done properly.”
There just aren’t any examples in Hong Kong. But why not? “The simple answer to that is that it’s never been tried,” says Shaw. Kaifong associations look after the social needs of their neighbourhoods, but for some reason, the same approach has never been taken to local shops. It’s something that leaves Shaw feeling frustrated. “It always frustrates me in Hong Kong that we seem to be quite a parochial society in many ways,” he says. “For a city of eight million people with a huge talent pool, why are we always following best practice and never establishing it? We always wait for the world to show us the way and we always take very long to follow.”
So while other cities are using the pandemic to rethink the way they manage urban space, Hong Kong is stuck in its usual traffic. But there may be a way forward. “I’m much more optimistic today than I was even three weeks ago,” says Shaw. “Because I can sense a changing mood.”