Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Being A Pedestrian in Hong Kong

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the phenomenon of high-velocity pedestrians in Hong Kong, and Han Suyin's suggestion of where it comes from. Today, I'd like to offer up another reason for peculiar walking behavior - local acceptance of the notion that "the car is King."

I mentioned in my Rocco Yim piece that in pragmatic Hong Kong, traffic considerations are the first concern of the government and the Public Works Department when building anything new. Let me highlight the fact that their "traffic" concern, to the detriment of environment, heritage or public usability, means automobile traffic only. Little by little, the pedestrian in Hong Kong has been marginalized, his autonomy and freedom stripped away.

Since the Asian Crisis in 1997, the Government has been pushed to create work and jobs for people. What better use to put them to than constructing steel barriers on every sidewalk? Sure, it makes it easier for cars to speed around crowded neighborhoods, but it forces the solid walls of people to move through narrow sidewalks far inadequate to their needs at peak hours. I don't know how you feel, but as someone that enjoys walking, I feel violated every time a new one goes up somewhere, stopping me from crossing an empty street except at the crosswalks.

But what's been even worse is that in many districts, the pedestrian has simply been forced underground. A chief example of this is Tsim Sha Tsui, where the crosswalks on major roads such as Salisbury Road near the New World Centre and the Cultural Centre, or on Peking Road towards Canton Road, have simply been removed. Indeed, with the opening of the new KCR station, the ground beneath Tsim Sha Tsui is a maze of tunnels (I rather depressingly realized the best way for me to get from the Sheraton to the Hong Kong History Museum was Underground). Tsim Sha Tsui is still a very walkable district, but major parts have been cut off from one another except by underpass, and as walking-tour organizers, we are obviously against that happening. Think about it - what the PWD is saying is, pedestrians are simply lower life forms than car drivers. Keep 'em subterranean, while the smog-belching cars can have the run of the town. Is it, in fact, simply an acknowledgement that given the current deplorable levels of pollution in Hong Kong, that going forward more and more of all human activity will have to take place below ground? City planners must confront the consequences of their actions.

Except, of course, where the profit motive takes over. In Central, which is mostly owned by former opium smuggling firm Jardine Matheson's subsidiary, Hong Kong Land, all of their buildings are connected by walkways. People that work, shop and walk in their properties never need step down on terra firma, nor breathe non-airconditioned air. Since they are Hong Kong's movers and shakers, the big spenders, they are in effect exalted by air-conditioned walkways with plate glass windows that allow you to see the cars (and peons) on the streets below. Let's face it, a cynical view of Rocco Yim's 'Aesthetics of Connection' is simply a way to force people to spend money in the retail areas of buildings you herd people through every day. Think about it the next time you amble around Central!


Anonymous said...

Yes, the Government is slow to do something for the pedestrians. These studies seem to be on-going.



Unknown said...

Hong Kong....A place that the roadwork never end

Dave and Stefan said...

Hi Tony and 五郎, thanks for your comments! Your links are particularly interesting Tony - I saw the proposals before but wasn't sure if anything was ever going to happen with them. Time will tell...