SCMP: Feet first: section of one of Hong Kong’s busiest roads to become a car-free zone for one day

SCMP: Feet first: section of one of Hong Kong’s busiest roads to become a car-free zone for one day

The 200-metre section of Des Voeux Road Central will feature stalls, a mini football pitch and art displays – and perhaps encourage the public to want more

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 September, 2016, 7:54pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 September, 2016, 10:34pm
Raymond Yeung

Part of Des Voeux Road Central in the heart of the city’s business hub will be sealed off later this month to showcase the vision of urban planners on how to convert the busy thoroughfare into a pedestrian-friendly public space without crippling traffic or causing major inconvenience to residents.

Organisers hope the event will persuade Hongkongers into supporting their ultimate goal of permanently rezoning the artery into a car-free zone.

The idea has already won the backing of an academic who is an expert on the issue.

Between 10am and 4pm on September 25, the section of Des Voeux Central between Morrison Street and Man Wa Lane will become a pedestrian-only zone. The 200-metre area will feature booths, stalls and a mini football pitch, while open spaces will be set aside for artists to perform or display exhibits.

Trams will still be allowed through but at lower speeds, while 400 volunteers will act as marshals to ensure pedestrian safety.

Patrick Fung Kin-wai, chief executive of co-organiser the Clean Air Network, said one of the biggest challenges was to persuade the Transport Department into granting a temporary traffic arrangement permit. “We had to analyse the traffic impact for whole Central and Western district. We also had to deal with police and the Fire Services Department, who were concerned about the potential blockage of emergency vehicular access to the area,” Fung said.

The group spoke to other stakeholders such as public transport operators, who were convinced the idea would not greatly disrupt their operations. About 20 bus routes will be diverted.

Campaign officer Winnie Tse Wing-lam said the group aimed to eventually make the plan permanent and not just one for weekends, when traffic flow is 40 per cent lower.

“We want to change people’s mindset and we know this is not going to be easy. A lot of roadside vendors we talked to agreed pollution was serious in the area, but they held a general perception that this is part of life,” she said.

Pedestrianising the area will help people interact with each other on the streetsPROFESSOR NG MEE-KAM Professor Ng Mee-kam, director of Chinese University’s Urban Studies Programme, was supportive of the plan. “We have to learn to co-exist,” she said. “I believe people are smart enough to adapt – remember the Occupy Central protests?”

She was referring to the democracy movement in 2014 when protesters blocked roads around the city for 79 days.

“I’m for non-motorised transport and walking experience. Pedestrianising the area will help people interact with each other on the streets, gaining inspiration and boosting our social capital,” Ng said.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as:
Car-free zone experiment steps up a gear in Central

Press: How expanding pedestrian zones can solve Hong Kong’s congestion and air pollution problems

Calvin Kan

Hong Kong has earned a reputation as an international city with high living standards. However, it continues to be affected by high air pollution levels, congestion, and an overall lack of space. Property consultant Knight Frank suggests that expanding the tram network and pedestrianisation can solve this.

According to the Government, trams provide frequent and affordable services without roadside emissions on Hong Kong Island for approximately 180,000 passengers per day. While only a small portion of the population, many are in the city’s lowest income group. Trams are primarily used for their practical value. The tramway system in Hong Kong began in the early 1900s. After more than 110 years of service, there are now 163 tramcars in Hong Kong, making it the world’s largest double-deck tram fleet still in operation.

Though seen as part of Hong Kong’s heritage, trams can be recognised as transportation for the future. New tram networks have been developed to great success all over Europe, as well as in major Chinese cities such as Shenyang, Suzhou, Beijing, Nanking, and Shenzhen. Hong Kong’s latest tramcars use aluminium for their structure, making them lighter and more durable. This improves energy efficiency. The new engines save up to 25 per cent of energy compared with older engines, with safety improvements added as well. Less noise is generated for more passenger comfort.

As for congestion, new roads won’t work. In fact, evidence shows that taking roads away is what increases quality of life in congested areas without causing traffic problems. Overseas cases demonstrate that 20 per cent to 60 per cent of traffic disappeared where roads were closed or traffic capacity reduced. More significantly, closures did not result in rerouting of traffic as in liquid form, but contracted as if traffic behaved as gas. Fifty years of successful pedestrianisation schemes in Europe show that significant amounts of traffic do not reappear after road closure. A more liveable and sustainable environment is created instead.

Hong Kong’s current vehicular pattern in Central is not sustainable. One might assume that pedestrianisation of a major road in Central will aggravate traffic conditions in the rest of the Central Business District, but the Occupy Central Movement proved the opposite. Commuters used more environmentally friendly modes of transport such as the MTR, bicycles or even walking instead.

Road transport and its associated emissions are major causes of environmental degradation in central urban areas. Transportation policy is therefore crucial for addressing public health concerns by improving air quality and reducing greenhouse gas emission. Pedestrianisation is shown to positively impact environmental conditions in core urban areas.

In 2009, a portion of Broadway in New York City was pedestrianised for 6 months. Pollutants closely related to traffic emissions including nitric oxide (NO) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) decreased by 63 per cent and 41 per cent respectively. Urban planners and environmental engineers were astounded. As a result of this success, the city government plans to expand the pedestrianised zone and create a permanent zone throughout Broadway.

Hong Kong’s Occupy Central Movement proved a link between roadside emission and the city’s air pollution. It also proved that pedestrianisation would significantly improve air quality. An air quality monitoring station at the Charter Road and Des Voeux Road Central junction recorded levels of 10/10 Air Quality Health Index before the Occupy Central Movement, and improved to 3/10 only three days into the movement. Clean Air Network measurements recorded an average PM2.5 level of 18 micrograms/m3 during the movement, which is far below World Health Organisation’s maximum safe standard of 25.

Studies also show positive economic returns from upgrading pedestrian infrastructure. Benefits include increased retail turnover, rental income and occupancy rate. Pedestrians can shop and view shop-windows more without vehicle safety concerns. Cities with pedestrianised districts attract tourists thanks to lower pollution, pleasant walking environments and amenities such as sidewalk cafes, fountains or other street furniture. These districts become popular destinations for the general public.

In New York, the provision of protected bike lanes at Union Square North led to a 49 per cent decrease in commercial vacancy rates. In Freiburg, Germany, the city centre has remained open only to pedestrians, trams, buses and cyclists since the 1980s. This enabled tram services to run through the commercial area without delay and become citizens’ preferred means of transport. The local economy also benefited, with rents of centrally located stores becoming among Germany’s highest. Since most of the city centre is a pedestrian area, 23 per cent of travelling in Freiburg is done on foot. In Hong Kong, research showed rental rates increasing by 17 per cent after pedestrian investments.

These types of adjustments, can help the Hong Kong Government’s Transport and Housing Bureau achieve major policy objectives. Objectives include promoting the use of public transport services by improving quality and coordination; effectively managing road use, reducing congestion and promoting safety; and continuously supporting environmental improvement measures in transport-related areas.

Calvin Kan is Planning & Development Executive, Land Advisory Services at Knight Frank

Press: Proposal to halt tram service ignites debate

SHINYA ABE, Nikkei staff writer October 20, 2015 7:00 pm JST Des Voeux Road Central, which travels through Hong Kong’s main financial district, is constantly filled with tram cars, buses and cars. HONG KONG — A proposal to end services along a tram route in Hong Kong’s Central District has stirred up a heated debate, with supporters of the idea saying it would ease traffic congestion and critics arguing it would worsen pollution and hurt tourism. In August,a former Hong Kong government town planner submitted a proposal to the Town Planning Board to end tram services along a roughly 1.5km section stretching from Jubilee Street in Central to Admiralty MTR Station along the busy Des Voeux Road Central. According to the proposal, removing the stations and tracks, which take up about a third of the road, would significantly ease traffic congestion in the area. The existing subway system would suffice as an alternative means of transportation in the area, the proposal said. However, critics immediately slammed the idea, saying it would harm the environment and tourism, and an opposition campaign was soon launched. Many opponents are worried that scrapping the service would increase automobile traffic and, therefore, air-pollution levels. One such person is Kwong Sum-yin, 35, an activist campaigning to protect the tram service on behalf of Clean Air Network, a nongovernmental organization. “Placing higher priority on cars in a world seeking more sustainability is anachronistic,” she said. Fighting back Clean Air Network and other NGOs have banded together to publish a counterproposal that calls for not only keeping the tram services, but also designating Des Voeux Road Central a no-car zone accessible only by pedestrians and tram cars. The group also launched a project to study a new design for the road in collaboration with experts from such academic institutions as the University of Hong Kong and Columbia University. Des Voeux Road Central is a major thoroughfare in the Central District — Hong Kong’s main financial district — and is constantly bustling with businesspeople and tourists. On one early September day, a group of about 10 young people unrolled some turf on the sidewalk along the busy avenue. While lounging on the grass, they read books, sang songs and by all appearances had a good time. But their portable-park session was not about having fun; it was part of a campaign to promote the use of trams and create a pedestrian-friendly area. Tram operator Hong Kong Tramways also opposes the removal plan. It says the proposal would not reduce congestion in the area because illegally parked vehicles, not slow-moving trams, are the main problem. Others in the pro-tram camp argue that the iconic 111-year-old tramway is an important tourism resource. The traditional double-decker cars are popular among visitors because of their distinctive looks and ability to offer views of the city from a high vantage point. The 13.5km tramway has been in service since 1904. Known as “ding-dings” for the sound of their bells, the city’s tram cars carry a total of about 180,000 passengers a day on average. The fare is flat and, at just 2.3 Hong Kong dollars (30 cents) for adults, inexpensive. The combination of convenience and affordability has helped the tram survive growing competition from rival transport services, including the modern MTR metro system, which serves roughly the same area. Eric Schuldenfrei, associate dean of the faculty of architecture at the University of Hong Kong, said that when the authorities discuss the proposal, they should keep in mind the possible impact on the regional economy. Official discussions on the issue are expected to start soon.

Press: Could Des Voeux Road really go green?

Timeout If strolling along grass down the middle of Des Voeux Road sounds impossible, then think again. It’s a stretch of road right in the heart of Hong Kong’s congested business district but with Occupy Central proving it’s possible to completely pedestrianise Des Voeux Road between the Western Market and World Wide House, who’s to say we can’t make the whole road a glistening oasis of calm? It was first proposed back in 2000 by urban planners, but ‘the beginning of the beginning’ for the zone came just last month on September 21, when a panel discussion took place at Asia Society Centre, marking the launch of the official Des Voeux Road Central Initiative. Moderator Aric Chen, curator for design and architecture at M+ explains that the initiative is ‘a coalition of various non-profit groups and entities across the environmental sector, the property sector, commercial and civically minded entities to push forward [the] plan.’ Five panel members – Jeffrey Johnson (Studio-X), Amale Andraos (Dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation), Donald Choi (Managing Director of Nan Fung Development), Eric Schuldenfrei (founding partner of ESKYIU) and councillor Paul Zimmerman (CEO of Designing Hong Kong) debated the logistics, difficulties and possibilities for the pedestrianisation project, comparing it to others around the world including the New York Highline and Times Square. Critic and curator of design and architecture Aric Chen moderated the panel. The Plan: “We want to expand the way we think of this offer to go beyond air quality and traffic, to really look at quality of life and public realm in Hong Kong,” says Chen. “The potential for creativity and urban innovation and to ask the question about what kind of city Hong Kong wants to be? Whether it is one that is technocratic, creating technocratically charged spaces or one that can look beyond that to become more innovative and people-centric.” Johnson enthusing,“We feel it has the potential to become a landmark in the new history of Hong Kong and public space.” The initiative launched in collaboration with the Faculty of Architecture at HKU and Colombia University, with Johnson describing the aim to divide the road into six zones, with six different concepts along it. “The idea [consists of] a playground (providing interaction and public enjoyment within the street itself, a canopy (an oasis within a concrete jungle, as a respite from the chaos of the city), a public theatre (of action on the street, a carnival or spectacle), a galleria (the idea of an indoor and outdoor space available 24 hours a day) and an art-scape (driven culturally and curated).” Andranos supported this creative idealism by stating, ‘with students nothing is impossible, and the school is bringing up some real questions to be explored.’ Eric then expressed his excitement for the road, with “the city that we inherit” becoming the “city that we change too.” Questioning how preservation or conservation is done in HK and “whether it can only be done in that way.” The two professors of architecture expressed their aim to use green technologies as a “more intelligent way of thinking about design, not only in public space but also thinking about a more sustainable future.” “Over 75% of HK is green space,” points out Chen. “[But much of it] is a little bit out of reach”. Zimmerman claims the DVRC could become ‘the pedestrian corridor’ that allows busy-urbanites to enjoy nature and green space too. Thinking pragmatically: Then the discussion turned pragmatic with Zimmerman worrying about ‘private-public partnership’ and how the space is going to be arranged. ‘That’s what the problem was with the Tsim Sha Tsui promenade….How do you make it a private-people-public initiative?” ‘ Businessman Donald Choi answered this saying, ‘we must engage all the stakeholders,’ as from a ‘commercial point of view…[it would] make a place that is enjoyable for shoppers or visitors to come. It will generate a lot of interest and attraction, not only for the tourists but also from the locals and residents and users.’ Emma Russell

Press: Plan to rezone road in Central

A federation comprising environmental, public space and urban design organizations announced a plan to raise HK$10 million to study the possibility to rezone Des Voeux Road Central to a pedestrian and tram precinct. DVRC Initiative said that it will also apply to the Town Planning Board to designate the section of the road as a pedestrian street on Sundays and public holidays for people to experience the scheme. This will reduce pollution, ease traffic congestion and create more public space. China Daily

Rezoning Central will allow everyone to share it

Loong Tsz Wai (English translation of HKEJ on EJinsights) A recent proposal to the Town Planning Board (TPB) by a retired government town planner to cancel the Central-to-Admiralty segment of the tram service has demonstrated how ridiculous our town planning procedures can get. Many are simply astounded by the fact that the threshold for submitting public applications to the TPB for changes in land use is so low that even a proposal as unpopular and unjustifiable as that one can be officially considered. However, the mind-boggling episode has also seriously inspired us to think about how we can make use of that low threshold the other way around — to take back the public space in our city and reshape our urban landscape in the best interests of the general public. As the public outcry against the proposal to remove part of the tramline continues, the Clean Air Network, Designing Hong Kong, Friends of the Earth and the Conservancy Association joined forces to launch the Rezoning Central program in early September. We have tabled our submission to the TPB proposing to lay artificial turf on the sidewalk in front of the Hang Seng Bank headquarters in Central to allow our citizens to read or perform in public. Our proposal is not only aimed at enhancing urban greening and expanding the area of public space in our central business district but also at reclaiming the rights of our pedestrians. The fact that the sidewalks in our city tend to be so narrow while roads for cars are often much wider suggests that our policymakers have given priority to motorists over pedestrians, which also, to some extent, reflects how they perceive the social hierarchy in our city. Those who own cars often belong to the upper class and are more influential socially and economically, therefore they deserve preferential treatment at the expense of pedestrians, who are mostly grass-roots people in the eyes of our government officials. In other words, our program is aimed not only at promoting urban greening but also at fostering community empowerment. A similar movement, known as the “parklet movement”, got underway in San Francisco in recent years. Citizens and the city government there are working together to turn idle parking lots across the city into community gardens and public space and community facilities for various purposes. Today, there are 50 parklets across San Francisco. As the Rezoning Central program is in full swing, we are already planning an even bigger project. Based on suggestions put forward by the Hong Kong Institute of Architects, we are going to propose to the TPB to designate the section of Des Voeux Road Central between Pedder Street and Morrison Street as an exclusive area for public recreation and an environmentally friendly transport system, thereby creating a sanctuary in our urban heartland where citizens can enjoy themselves. In the days ahead, we will be giving talks and conducting workshops to rally support from the public, the professional community and the business sector for our project, and we will also be setting up the Des Voeux Road Central Alliance later this month to promote our plan and get the message across. This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on September 21.  

Press: Hong Kong’s tram debate shines light on Central’s worsening traffic congestion

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 September, 2015, 10:52am UPDATED : Thursday, 03 September, 2015, 10:52am Comment›Insight & Opinion Bernard Chan Bernard Chan says wild conspiracy theories aside, there has been some thoughtful discussion on ways to tackle the real source of the problem in crowded Central – too many cars The discussion sees trams not as a problem, but as a solution. Photo: Edward Wong I am often impressed at how the mainstream and especially social media can make a big story out of something minor. A former civil servant involved in planning recently put forward a proposal to the Town Planning Board to scrap tram services through Central. I do not know the intentions of the individual who made the submission. But it sounds like something that could have disappeared without trace. Instead, it attracted considerable attention in the press, and it went viral online. Several things struck me about this. First of all, there were conspiracy theories. One claimed that the government had arranged the proposal in order to distract attention from the problems over lead in water in certain housing estates and schools. Another suggested that developers were behind the idea. Both reflect the distrust and suspicion that exist in parts of the community. More broadly, the proposal was seen as an attack on heritage. With the old Tung Tak pawn shop in Wan Chai in the news at the same time, it is not surprising that people were sensitive about this. The trams are icons of Hong Kong and, for many of us, part of our childhood memories. People have an emotional attachment to them that you would never find with, say, buses. Bigger office towers will further reduce air flow and increase pedestrian traffic. At some point, we will have to make some changes The rise in awareness of heritage – especially among the young – goes back to the demolition of the Star Ferry and Queen’s piers a little under 10 years ago. It is an important development. It shows that many young people have new ideas about the balance between quality of life and development. It has expanded civil society and activism. And it has highlighted the sense of local identity among the younger generation. These are all things our political leaders must think about. However, to see the proposal to scrap the trams as primarily about heritage seems to me to be missing the point. The former official behind the plan certainly disliked the idea that we should preserve trams as icons – except in a museum. But his thinking, so far as I could tell, was almost entirely about traffic. If the media and online debate had ignored this angle, it would be easy to dismiss it. The conspiracy theories were a bit wild, and the protests from the heritage supporters were exaggerated and overlooked the real subject of the proposal. Fortunately, many commentators did address the proposal as a suggestion about transport and planning. And I think the great debate over this plan has done us all a favour as a result. The proposal claims that trams waste space, and we could reduce traffic congestion if they were scrapped. If this were true, it would be worth considering. The traffic situation in Central, and basic conditions like air quality and “walkability” in the district, are getting very serious. For years, officials have put this problem aside. But on Des Voeux Road alone, several sites are currently being redeveloped. Bigger office towers will further reduce air flow and increase pedestrian traffic. At some point, we will have to make some changes. The discussion in the media and on the internet – and among some politicians – largely saw the trams not as a problem, but, if anything, a solution. Even a transport official made it clear that not only is the tram important and affordable, but it is irreplaceable. The real problem, many people recognise, is the vehicular traffic in Central (and this probably goes for other districts). Passenger cars go round in circles – I have contributed to this problem myself – or park illegally, using up valuable space. Delivery vans and trucks are constantly coming and going. There are ways out of this. We could provide drop-off and pick-up points on the reclaimed area to the north and bar cars from the core area of Central during office hours. We could ban goods deliveries from the area during daytime. Some people would probably oppose such measures, but many more would enjoy a much nicer walkable environment. The trams proposal has got a lot more people thinking about such ideas. Bernard Chan is a member of the Executive Council

Press: SCMP Editorial 29 August 2015

Hong Kong trams are unique. Affectionately known as the “Ding Ding” because of the sound produced, they are the world’s only fully double-deck fleet still in service after more than a century. With some 180,000 passengers hopping on and off every day, these green-coloured carriages are as much a popular mode of transport as an icon of the city. It was therefore puzzling when former government planner Sit Kwok-keung filed an application to the land use authority to have the most popular tram section scrapped. The former official, now running a consultancy firm, believed that congestion in Central and Admiralty could be eased by freeing the lanes currently taken up by trams. The proposal immediately sparked a public uproar. Given the trams’ popularity and history, the government is unlikely to take such a sense-defying idea seriously. But officials’ silence in the early days has fuelled speculation. It was not until last week that the government issued a press statement upholding the role of trams. What sets trams apart from other transport is their functional and heritage value. Their convenience and low fares make them popular among office workers, schoolchildren, housewives and tourists alike. There is nothing else that is as eco-friendly, affordable and reliable. That said, the service still has room for improvement. The French operator Veolia has yet to make good its promise of a makeover for all carriages. If there is any gain from the debate, it will be putting traffic congestion on the public agenda. It is true that we have far too many vehicles running on the roads. The situation is aggravated by chauffer-driven limousines idling or running around while waiting for their bosses. Buses calling at bus stops along the road are also slowing down the traffic. A joint study by the Institute of Planners has proposed the opposite – turning part of Des Voeux Road into a tram-and-pedestrian-only zone. This may be a good way to ease traffic congestion.