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Walkability complements transportation

October 21, 2015

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Secretary for Transport & Housing Prof Anthony Cheung 

Today, our societies have developed very sophisticated modes of transport - we do not call it mobility, we call it transport in the old days - based on vehicles, railways, ships and air planes, thereby greatly extending our spheres of mobility and connectivity, and in the process also promoting social, cultural and economic exchange, so all the nice things about connectivity, about transportation which we should not forget.

 

Markets and economies would not have become what they are today without transportation. Yet many different countries and societies now begin to wonder whether we have become too dependent on mechanised transport to the extent of creating all kinds of social problems, including human interface, perhaps. And there are problems associated with road congestion and carbon emissions. So there has been a rediscovery of walking as mobility in recent years.

 

Compact city

I am going to tell you the Hong Kong story. In a way Hong Kong is a highly compact society whereby you cannot just rely on walking alone. How do we do with mobility in such a highly compact and densely populated city?

 

A city can be considered to be "mobile" when vehicles can run on roads smoothly most of the time with minimum adverse impact on the environment, while pedestrians are still free and relaxed to walk in an environment which is comfortable, convenient and safe. We believe that any transport policy should factor in "walkability" as complementary to the overall mobility system through careful planning and provision of adequate pedestrian facilities, and the extent of walkability ultimately of course depends on each city's physical, social and economic conditions.

 

Hong Kong is a medium-sized city with about 7.3 million population, and it has much of its terrain being hilly to mountainous with steep slopes. We have limited flat land available and feasible for development, and we have historically made use of harbour reclamation. Of course today, Hong Kong's laws are very stringent about any reclamation. Today, only about 25% of Hong Kong's natural landmass is developed. We have 40% of the landmass designated as country parks and nature reserves.

 

As a compact city, we have not much choice but to develop vertically - a city that is packed by skyscrapers so as to cater for the ever growing residential needs and economic activities. As you know Hong Kong is an international trading and financial hub. Just last year, we received a total of close to 61 million visitors and 4.38 million tonnes of cargo by land, sea and air.

 

With high population density and limited developable land, traffic congestion has always been haunting us, and I suppose in many other cities as well. In 2014 for instance, the average car journey speed at some of Hong Kong's major traffic corridors during the rush hours was only 10 kilometres per hour, which is just about double the walking speed of an adult at four to five kilometres per hour.

 

Tackling traffic

Traffic congestion, to an extent, is due to the rate of car growth outweighing the growth rate of public roads. Of the last decade, the total number of cars has increased by an average of 4% but the annual increase of public roads in terms of length is only 0.8%. In other words, we do not have enough roads for cars.

 

Building more roads is simply not the answer, because more roads would bring more traffic and of course more environmental problems, and Hong Kong's hilly landscape makes extensive road building very difficult.

 

To tackle road traffic congestion, Hong Kong has adopted a public transport-based policy with "railway as backbone". Our railway includes a subway system as well which allows us to discourage the use of private cars.

 

We have an extensive, easily accessible, reliable and generally speaking affordable public transport system, comprising railway, franchised buses, public light buses, taxis, non-franchised buses, trams and ferries. The public transport system carries some 90% of total passenger trips, which is about 12 million trips every day, making Hong Kong one of the least car-dependent cities in the world. Our public transport was ranked first among 84 cities last year by Arthur D Little's Urban Mobility Index.

 

Under the "railway as backbone" policy, 70% of residential areas will be covered by the railway network (which is defined by any area within one kilometre of a railway station) by 2021 when all new domestic rail lines now under construction are consecutively completed. Last year, we published the Railway Development Strategy for more railway schemes to be commissioned. When these new schemes are implemented, the whole network will cover up to 75% of residential areas and 85% of employment opportunities in 2031. Franchised buses serve areas without direct railway access, and provide feeder services connecting to the railway network.

 

Against such a backdrop of heavy investment in and reliability on good public transport, how does walkability come in?

  

Walkability

To illustrate this point, I would like to first explain the walking pattern in Hong Kong. According to the territory-wide Travel Characteristics Survey completed by our Transport Department in 2012, about 30% of Hong Kong residents made at least one walk-only trip on a normal working day, and over 70% of our commuters walked to access a public transport mode and to reach their destination after alighting from a vehicle every day.

 

While Hong Kong must rely on public transport to foster the mobility of citizens, we also need diversity in our mobility system to cater for different travel needs.  Hence, we promote walking and cycling as a mode of short-distance commuting through the provision of pedestrian walkways and cycle tracks. In addition, we also put forward innovative walkability projects to facilitate the transformation of our old districts.

 

I am going to share with you some of Hong Kong's efforts to facilitate walking as a real and practical choice for most commuters. You may also like to know that Hong Kong is rated "the most walkable" city of China by the Natural Resources Defence Council last year.

 

There is a book, some of you might have read it, which has the title "Cities without Ground - A Hong Kong Guidebook". It is called "Cities without Ground" because according to the authors, who are not locals, Hong Kong is a place where pedestrians do not need to touch the ground to reach their destinations. For example, pedestrians can walk on the north shore of Hong Kong Island that are three kilometres apart, or about three subway stations apart, without ever leaving the continuous footbridge network.

 

A comprehensive elevated walkway system not only helps us to overcome geographical constraints, it also allows us to walk comfortably, particularly in a city like Hong Kong which is always rainy and hot. This idea was first applied to our Central District, our core business district. An extensive walkway system runs past office buildings, allowing pedestrians and office workers to move in a comfortable environment without a need to walk on the roadside which is often filled with vehicular emissions from the congested traffic.

 

Major elevated walkways in Hong Kong are also found in residential developments linked to transportation interchange. Taking the footbridge network in one of our districts, known as Tsuen Wan for example, it links up transportation interchanges, a wet market, a public housing estate, a local town hall and several shopping malls. Pedestrians can enjoy a wide variety of attractions and get direct access to locations with different purposes when moving along the footbridges.

 

Some densely populated districts in Hong Kong are actually situated in hilly places, so we face the challenge of ensuring smooth mobility of residents in such areas. One solution is to build a hillside escalator and elevator system. An example is the rather well-known Central-Mid-Levels Escalator & Walkway System which starts from our CBD (central business district), running through the narrow streets up-hill, all the way reaching the mid-level residential areas. By the side of the system, restaurants, bars and modern shops have emerged, turning the area into a new destination for locals and tourists to explore.

 

Barrier-free living

To facilitate the mobility of persons in need such as the elderly, the Government has been installing barrier-free facilities at public walkways for years. In August 2012, we decided to expand what is known as the Universal Accessibility Programme to retrofit barrier-free facilities such as lifts at public walkways. Currently, there are around 200 such retrofitting works items under the programme, over 80% of which will be progressively completed by 2018.

 

Our public housing estates are also designed to promote a barrier-free living environment for persons with diverse mobility needs, including the elderly so that they are encouraged to step out of their home and interact with the community, thus fostering an inclusive society.

 

To facilitate the use of public transport and the ease of switching between modes in the transportation interchange, pedestrian walkways connecting to major public transport interchanges are equipped with covers, to shelter pedestrians from sun and rain.

 

The competing use of the limited road space is always a challenge. Since 2000, our Transport Department has implemented more than 80 pedestrian schemes to give road-use priority to pedestrians, yet having due regard to the right of other road users. These pedestrian schemes range from full-time pedestrian precinct zones to footpath-widening works.

 

While these schemes are generally welcomed by the public, further introduction of such schemes becomes increasingly difficult due to limited road space available for competing needs and street management considerations. Hong Kong's feature of highly mixed residential and commercial land use also leads to noise and environmental problems created by the pedestrians and on-street activities. This highlights an important factor in promoting walkability, that is, the support from the local community.

 

Apart from facilitating walking, we also seek to foster a cycling-friendly environment in a pragmatic way. In the past, cycling was only considered to be something for leisure. But nowadays, we regard it as a form of short-distance green commuting.

 

However, urban areas are highly congested and crowded, so we do not think cycling in such areas is appropriate for safety reasons. But we are trying to encourage cycling in our new towns and new development areas. We are also currently putting in place a trunk cycle track network of more than 80 kilometres long, connecting the eastern and western parts of our non-urban region, known as the New Territories, so that the public can cycle for both commuting and leisure.

 

Overcoming challenges

Now, the challenges. The main policy challenge to Hong Kong is that while we have to do more to facilitate walkability and to respond to aspirations for less mechanised transport means, we cannot lose sight of the need to extend our public transport system and to make it more efficient and accessible. Our current approach can be described as "Public Transportation Plus", that is public transport complemented by walkability and cycling-friendly measures.

 

There will always be competing use of road space between motorists, pedestrians and cyclists. Besides, heavy traffic on the road often adds difficulties to pedestrianisation projects as it is not easy for the local public to accept traffic diversions and bus service re-routing.

 

On one hand we want better mobility, on the other hand we need to handle public demands for not changing their commuting habits and patterns. A case in point is the bus route rationalisation scheme, to better utilise the use of buses, reduce unnecessary bus trips and lessen congestion and carbon emissions. However, such projects have faced very strong opposition from some local residents and politicians.

 

Pedestrianisation project is another example. There are street management problems arising from such projects where conflicts emerge between pedestrians, street performers, shop owners and local residents. And these easily turn into local political issues.

 

Hence we need a mindset change in the community, among different stakeholders, as much as a paradigm shift among policy makers and transport specialists to move away from an unduly vehicular-based or biased mobility perspective.

 

In a way, walkability or not reflects the pace and character of a city, and the pace of our working life and social life. While contemplating walkability, we are reflecting on how our life should be organised, which is a much bigger challenge for all of us.

 

I hope by sharing with you the Hong Kong story, you will understand the efforts we are making in a very compact city with high population density and rather limited developable land, how we seek to improve our public transport system complemented with suitable walkability and cycling measures, so as to strike the best balance for people with diverse mobility needs. And I would like to share in the conclusion the comments made by the earlier two speakers. I think they have really touched on the crust of the issue which is how by designing, planning our commuting system we can ensure our people would have a healthier and happier life. 

 

Of course, sometimes the flesh is weaker than the mind, and I think that is the main paradox of policy making on transport policy. Thank you.

 

Secretary for Transport & Housing Prof Anthony Cheung gave these remarks at the Walk21 Vienna 2015-XVI International Conference on Walking & Liveable Communities plenary session in Vienna, Austria on October 20.



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