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Walk the walk: Should Des Voeux Road Central go car-free?

Written by
Time Out Hong Kong
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After a successful trial pedestrianisation of Central’s Des Voeux Road in September, should this busy highway be made permanently free of cars? Rachel Lau investigates

The Strategic Planning Department recently published a report, Hong Kong 2030+: Towards a Planning Vision and Strategy Transcending 2030, that outlines many of the city’s strategic goals for the years to come. According to the project’s official website, the main aim of the study is: ["To create] a visionary, proactive, pragmatic and action-orientated approach… To ensure a focused public dialogue on the key planning issues critical to future development."

One of the study’s main focuses is land usage. Since Hong Kong’s population is expected to increase from 7.24 to 8.22 million by 2043, we need to find a way to support and maintain a booming population while mitigating the potential for drastically increased pollution levels. As more and more people overload our SAR’s resources, the potential for environmental degradation increases. Not only is our environment at risk but also the health of residents.

One of the report’s headline-grabbing proposals is increased pedestrianisation of various major roads. This could help transform Hong Kong into a greener, more walkable city that is better equipped to deal with increased numbers.

This proposition was given a trial run in September for the event Very DVRC. For one afternoon, a 200m stretch of Des Voeux Road Central was closed at the behest of Walk DVRC, an organisation that is working with NGO Clean Air Network to promote the pedestrianisation of the aforementioned road. The road was cleared of all vehicles, with only the tram running, and participants were free to wander between picnic tables and various art stands.

According to Loong Tsz-wai of the Clean Air Network, the project was 'highly successful' and allowed people to visualise the various benefits of a pedestrianised Central. Loong remarks that this is the first step in working towards a more walkable Hong Kong. However, Walk DVRC doesn’t plan to stop with this minor success. Their end goal is for the government to rezone all of Des Voeux Road from Western District to Central for the use of pedestrians and the tram alone.

Hong Kong has a reputation as a convenient and easy-to-travel city and has already taken steps to move towards a greener lifestyle through pedestrianisation in recent years. Since 2000, the Transport Department has enacted three different pedestrianisation schemes, which included full-time pedestrian streets, part-time pedestrian streets and traffic calming streets. Some of the most prominent schemes include the full-time pedestrianisation of Paterson Street in Causeway Bay and the part-time pedestrianisation of Lan Kwai Fong in Central. 

However, while these moves have been significant in making Hong Kong simultaneously greener and more walkable, little progress has been made in Central in the last five years. Loong remarks: "Yes, the government has tried some initiatives since 2007 but we want to push them further. I think the time has come. The DVRC project can improve the walkability and the connectivity of the central business district and it can also improve roadside air quality. There’re many people based on DVRC and they breathe in very bad air every day."

Indeed, the main health benefit of increased pedestrianisation is increased air quality. Many Hong Kong residents experience incredibly poor air quality conditions in the city. Despite the fact that almost 90 percent of passenger trips are conducted by public transport, Hong Kong’s air quality still ranks far below what the World Health Organisation considers healthy. According to the Clean Air Network, during peak traffic hours, the concentration of particulate matter (PM2.5) on Des Veoux Road Central can reach up to 55μg/m3, which is four times the recommended amount. Pollution levels are exacerbated by heavy traffic congestion and the street canyon effect, whereby the tall buildings along the road trap pollution on the street level.

Margaret Chan, the senior town planner of the Strategic Planning Department, was involved in the Hong Kong 2030+ study and advocates for increased pedestrianisation in Hong Kong. Her department is working on creating more pedestrian networks, more walkable streets and making it easier to access public transportation. She comments: "If the built environment is conducive to walking, this could entice and encourage more people to walk than to take other forms of road-based transport, which in turn reduces our carbon footprint and roadside air pollution levels." However, Chan also notes that there could be some negative consequences to these schemes, mentioning: "While there are many successful examples of pedestrianisation both locally and across the world, we should also consider some of the management issues and pay due respect to local views regarding their implementation. For instance, whether local businesses and residents would be adversely affected by a pedestrianisation scheme and whether there would be any adverse traffic or environmental impacts arising from the scheme. Clearly a balance needs to be struck between the two sides."

Indeed, many who work along Des Veoux Road Central have concerns about the proposal. Kingston Lai, a staff member at the Nike store on Des Voeux Road tells us: "This is a business district. If you prevent the cars from driving through, not as many people can access the stores here. If people are limited to only the ferry or the MTR, it’s definitely not as convenient." His remarks mirror many of the sentiments of employees and store-owners alike along this key thoroughfare who believe that the closing of the road to cars would decrease the flow of traffic and adversely affect business.

Additionally, like many of the employees who work around Des Voeux Road, Lai does not live within walking distance of his workplace. "I live on the eastern side of Hong Kong Island. Normally, to get to work, I’ll take a bus. But if my bus can’t get through, I’ll have to take the MTR and possibly have to switch to minibuses just to get to work on time." Lai, like plenty of others, cannot afford to live close to an MTR station and his commute would almost double in duration if pedestrianisation plans were to come into effect.

However, despite these concerns, Chan firmly believes that pedestrianisation would be a step towards a greener future. She wants to rethink public spaces, saying: "We believe there should be synergy between public and private spaces and we call for a holistic and open mindset in construing the public space. The Government could play an enabling role in facilitating collaborative efforts and shared contribution in making our public spaces not only functional but also welcoming for everyone to enjoy."

Worryingly, the Hong Kong 2030+ study also discovered that the number of private cars in Hong Kong could hit 1.23 million by 2041, more than double the number of cars in 2015. With such a growth in vehicles, increased congestion and its proportionate increase in air pollution is bound to be an issue for our city. Whether pedestrianisation becomes an element of the solution remains to be seen. However, Loong claims that the success of Very DVRC has demonstrated that such a change is feasible. The event led to a 92 percent increase in consumer traffic and a drastic decrease in PM2.5 levels, he claims. He and his organisation hope that community members and other citizens can see both the economic and social benefits pedestrainisation could bring. 

For more information about pedestrianisation schemes, visit the Transport Department website and Clean Air Network.

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