Reclaiming Walkable and Breathable Streets for the People

Published at SCMP Insights & Opinions on 23 Oct 2014

Planners need to end the occupation of our streets – by vehicles

Loong Tsz Wai says the cleaner air evident during the Occupy movement should convince city planners to make Hong Kong more pedestrian friendly

The Occupy movement has done more than disrupt and cause inconvenience; it has provided an invaluable chance to rethink what is needed to make our streets more friendly to pedestrians and the environment.

It is not surprising that the air quality in Central, Causeway Bay and Mong Kok improved remarkably during the occupation period, since people could walk, run or even bike instead of suffering the usual traffic crawling along roads at peak hours.

We collected data of concentrations of fine particles (PM2.5) at the three occupied areas on October 1 and October 15, and found that on October 1, all three locations showed lower concentrations of PM2.5 comparable with the World Health Organisation benchmark, indicating an improvement in air quality.

However, after police partially cleared barriers and reopened roads in Causeway Bay and Central, the concentration of PM2.5 pollutants rose; the October 15 readings showed an increase of 225 per cent in Causeway Bay and 244 per cent in Central. In Mong Kok, where roads remained closed, PM2.5 levels rose by 161 per cent. Since we believe ambient air quality was worse that day, Mong Kok served as a control variable.

Although the government claimed that the partial clearance of occupied areas could alleviate congestion, there have been serious jams after roads were reopened. Clearly, the government should consider fundamental changes to its transport policy.

People around the occupied areas have begun to rethink their spatial perceptions. For instance, a commuter running from home in Western district could get to work in Admiralty in 15 minutes less than it would take by bus. This shows it would be viable to set up pedestrian zones in core commercial areas.

This leads us to a crucial planning question: what kind of city are we pursuing? Do we want one with more roads, resulting in areas dominated by polluting vehicles, or can we have a city – with a network of vibrant communities – that is walkable, breathable and sustainable?

Current city planning favours vehicles. According to the Transport Department, there were 488,664 privately owned cars as of August this year, accounting for about 70 per cent of the total number of vehicles in Hong Kong. Thus, given that only a fraction of Hong Kong residents own a car, it appears that most of our road resources are dominated by a minority.

Reclaiming streets occupied by vehicles can have a radical effect. From Transport Department data, the average speed of vehicles in the urban areas of Kowloon and Hong Kong Island in 2013 was 24km/h and 21km/h respectively, barely faster than a bicycle. This should give us some idea of how serious congestion is.

There are many transport policies we can borrow, such as London’s successful low-emission zones.

The Hong Kong Institute of Planners has proposed a pedestrian-tram green zone on Des Voeux Road in Central that would reduce people’s exposure to pollution. This would be a good start, but officials need to explore the feasibility of introducing other transport management measures.

Loong Tsz Wai is the community relations manager of Clean Air Network