Whenever the term “roadway” comes up, people often automatically associate it with the part of the main road that is exclusively for cars.
Only a few would think of it as part of public space in urban areas where each and every citizen is supposed to have access.
In Hong Kong, roads are getting increasingly wider while sidewalks are getting narrower, and people seem to have got so used to this that they don’t even question it at all, nor has it ever occurred to them that they are actually being deprived of their rightful access to our urban public space.
Just look at the numbers, and you will see how astoundingly fast the mileage of our roadway has been growing: in 1941 the total mileage of roads on Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and the New Territories was 278, 171 and 597 kilometers respectively. By 2014 the total mileage reached 442 km on Hong Kong Island, 466 km in Kowloon, and 2,095 km in the New Territories.
The growth is continuing in earnest and our city has been caught in a vicious circle: since we have more cars, we need more roads, and more roads increase demand for more cars.
The problem is, the pace at which the mileage of our roads is growing is lagging far behind the growth in the number of cars in this city.
As a result, hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens are spending more hours commuting between their home and workplace on a daily basis due to heavy traffic congestion.
According to figures from the Transport Department, traffic has turned so bad in recent years that currently the average peak-hour driving speed is below 10 km per hour.
In some districts it is even worse: it is just 5.1 kph on Hillier Street in Sheung Wan, 8.7 kph on Connaught Road Central, 9.2 kph on Queen’s Road Central and 9.5 kph on Des Voeux Road Central.
In other words, the average speed of vehicles along the busiest roads at rush hour has dropped below the average pace of a jogger.
So how about building more roads to accommodate the increasing number of cars? It sounds a pretty good idea, which the government is actually doing already, but in my opinion it is not going to work.
That’s because land is perhaps the most precious resource in our city, and by far roads have already occupied 4,000 hectares of land, compared with only 1,600 hectares occupied by all public housing estates combined, which are home to 2.35 million people.
We just can’t go on forever using our land to build roads at the expense of other users in society, and our government must change the existing mindset and stop giving priority to motorists over pedestrians.
The ever increasing number of cars in our city has its roots in the fact that the vast majority of those who can afford to buy cars have been under the impression that the roadway is a free and inexhaustible public resource, that they are welcome to use it at the expense of no one, when the truth is exactly the opposite.
To get to the heart of the problem, we must raise the awareness of our well-off class that roads are not free resources because they take up land, which could otherwise be used for building houses, parks and other things to benefit others.
Building more roads has a very steep social price tag because it is actually widening the class gap in society as it benefits those who can afford to buy cars at the expense of those who can’t.
We must educate the people that pedestrians should have as much right to use our roads as motorists, and like any other city, Hong Kong should be a city that is planned and built for people, not cars.
Pedestrians and motorists should enjoy equal rights when it comes to using our roads.
To promote the idea of turning our roads into public space for the benefit of everyone, the Des Voeux Road Central Alliance is working aggressively to persuade the government to turn the entire Des Voeux Road Central into a pedestrian-tram zone by 2019.
In September this year we will be conducting a large-scale experiment known as the “Walk DVRC” to test our idea, and we have high hopes for this test.
The full text of this article appeared in Chinese in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 11.
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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