23 October 2018
Poor street management can be seen in many parts of Hong Kong, where equipment and barriers reduce the space for pedestrians. Photo: Jennifer Frisinger
Poor street management can be seen in many parts of Hong Kong, where equipment and barriers reduce the space for pedestrians. Photo: Jennifer Frisinger

Scoring a city’s walkability

How does Hong Kong fare in terms of walkability?

I joined a group of volunteers to score the walkability of four districts, using a number of criteria including pedestrian safety, waste management and public open spaces – or the lack thereof.

I wouldn’t exactly call Hong Kong a pleasant place for a stroll.

Sure, it’s got rugged hiking trails and lovely country parks, but in the heart of the city where most people work and play, pedestrians have not only taken a backseat to cars and trucks, they have the lowest priority among official concerns. 

Given that walking accounts for nearly 40 percent of daily trips in Hong Kong, it’s fair to say that there are lots of harassed and inconvenienced foot soldiers on sidewalks and pavements at any given moment.

Hong Kong’s weather can be brutally hot and frightfully wet. Monsoons flip umbrellas inside out.

More frustrating, on the crowded sidewalks, umbrella etiquette does not exist. An obsession with white skin means that even when the sun is shining, parasols with eye-poking spokes are out in force.

Public transport is cheap and efficient, not to mention safe and clean.

Some efforts toward walkability have been made in the form of overhead walkways, escalators into hillsides and other methods to bridge buildings (rather than neighborhoods).

But these feel more gratuitous than functional in the sense that you can smell retail money when you are on an over-the-road passageway that leads from Cartier to Hermes.

Meanwhile, at ground level, unnecessary barriers that separate the sidewalk from the street cut mightily into pedestrian space. Walkers are squeezed into narrow channels and pushed forward shoulder-to-shoulder.

Long stretches of road with no pedestrian crossings mean that people jaywalk – or “jayrun” – across four lanes of two-direction vehicular traffic, while also watching out for trams.

Protracted traffic signals that favor cars force walkers to pile up at street corners and dash across the road between honking and braking cars to avoid the wait.

Here are some other factors influencing the walkability of Hong Kong:

- Three friends walking abreast at a leisurely pace – chatting and making it impossible for faster walkers to pass.

- Swervers who have their eyes and fingers on their mobile phones and veer like drunken sailors from one side of the walkway to the other.

- Curbs that are rounded at crossings and eat into pedestrian sidewalk space so that trucks with smaller turning radiuses can round the bends more easily.

- Poor street management where equipment such as brooms, buckets and receptacles for leaves, sticks, etc. have been tied to sidewalk barriers, thus reducing pedestrian space.

- Unserviced air-conditioners dripping on your head from above.

- Unregulated use of pull-up promotional banners for manicures and karaoke bars that usurp street space.

- Various organizations blocking the streets to ask for donations.

- No place to sit down; no greenery; no shade.

- Lack of public toilets.

- Poor directional signage.

But after visiting areas of Kwun Tong, Choi Hung, Mong Kok and Des Voeux Road Central, we discovered that parts of Hong Kong are very walkable indeed.

Efforts of “place-making” can be seen in some districts where green, sitting out areas provide shade and alleys have been cleared of debris and lighted to provide easy shortcuts from one busy road to another.

Choi Hung estate, in particular, has easily accessible, ground-level shops, underground tunnels connecting the estate to shopping malls and public transit.

Mong Kok is less pedestrian-friendly with its plethora of hawkers and touts clogging the walkways. In addition, public toilets are not easy to find.

For nearly 15 years, there has been a movement to close Des Voeux Road Central to vehicular traffic and allow only pedestrians and trams to ply this route from Pedder Street to Western Market.

The project has been started several times and only recently got off the ground.

Following the lead of other population-dense cities like Manhattan and London, where portions of thoroughfares are closed to cars to make way for shoppers and socialization in general, a section of Des Voeux Road Central was closed on a Sunday as a trial.

Buses and cars were banned for a 200-meter section to provide a “street fair” atmosphere where walkers could enjoy the bounties (including entertainment and food) of a pedestrian-first environment.

The sentiment from the man-on-the-street was that this was a fantastic first step into giving Hong Kong back to the people who want and need to walk it.

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Consultant, Media, Marketing and Communications at Civic Exchange

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