Register Friday | September 21 | 2018

The Improved Pedestrian Experience

If Hong Kong can do it, why can’t we?

The volume of the crowds that descend on Hong Kong's Causeway Bay every Sunday would generate chaos in most cities: Pedestrians would pour off overcrowded sidewalks and into the streets, snarling traffic. Police would scramble to either push people back or close the roads altogether. Nobody would quite know what to make of it.

But Hong Kong doesn't have that problem. Thanks to a forward-thinking pedestrianization project, many of its neighbourhoods, including Causeway Bay, boast at least some pedestrianized or partially pedestrianized streets, making Hong Kong one of the most pedestrian-oriented cities in the world. Canada's cities, take note.

Hong Kong's pedestrian scheme dates back to 2000, when the territory's transport department set out to improve Hong Kong's pedestrian experience, encourage more people to walk, and improve the city's often dubious air quality. Three different categories of streets help achieve those goals. Full-time pedestrian streets give pedestrians absolute priority-vehicular access is restricted to certain times of the day and for specific activities, such as deliveries. Part-time pedestrian streets are closed to vehicles for specific periods of the day; and traffic-calming streets give more real estate to pedestrians with wider sidewalks, reducing the amount of space given over to cars.

When considering whether or not to pedestrianize a street, Hong Kong's transport planners ask a few crucial questions: Is the pedestrian traffic heavy enough? Is there the right mix of street elements, such as subway entrances, markets, shops, or schools, to attract people to the area? How would pedestrianization affect traffic circulation? Would it make the neighbourhood more pleasant?

So far, planners have been satisfied enough with the answers to pedestrianize streets in nine different parts of Hong Kong. In Mongkok, Sai Yeung Choi Street is closed to vehicles from four PM to midnight every day, and from noon to midnight on weekends and holidays. More than 16,000 pedestrians take advantage of these car-free periods every hour. Nearby, in gritty Sham Shui Po, several traffic-calming and part-time pedestrian streets accommodate the neighbourhood's two markets as well as the heavy pedestrian traffic generated by the subway station. In Lan Kwai Fong, Hong Kong's glitzy nightclub district, most streets are closed to traffic at night, when snappily dressed revelers spill out from bars, drinks in hand. Additionally, several new pedestrian streets are under construction and even more are in the planning stages.

Hong Kong's pedestrianization project works because it's straightforward, assertive and, above all, flexible. In just five years, the transport department has revamped dozens of streets, aggressively using pedestrianization as a tool to promote walking and discourage driving. Most importantly, it doesn't try to impose a one-size-fits-all model on the city, as planners on this side of the Pacific have often done. Hong Kong's different levels of pedestrianization are designed with an ear tuned to the specific needs of different streets and neighbourhoods.

Can such an approach work in Canadian cities? Raphaël Fischler, professor of urban planning at McGill University, is reserved in his response. He produces a long list of stringent requirements for successful pedestrian streets. The most basic, he says, are width, length and orientation: pedestrianization should be limited to a street's most active blocks; the street shouldn't be wider than forty-nine feet, building-to-building; and the orientation of a pedestrianized street should be east-west in cities with cold climates. Other criteria include pedestrian traffic, the existing vitality of businesses, high population and commercial density, and the existence of "anchors" such as public squares and parks, transportation hubs, busy public institutions or shopping complexes to ensure a consistently busy street. Fischler notes that many of Canada's commercial streets simply aren't suited for full pedestrianization. "The most important element in the Hong Kong policy," he adds, "is the use of a variety of options to make streets more pedestrian-friendly, from total closure to relatively light redesign. This is the key. Adapt your strategies and interventions to local realities and use modest methods of improving things where possible."

Fischler's point is evident when you look at the North American pedestrianization efforts that have failed as well as those that have been successful. The failures are projects that attempted to prop up a half-dead commercial district, such as Main Street in downtown Buffalo. Other bad examples include poorly designed spaces imposed on workaday office districts; Ottawa's mind-numbingly dull Sparks Street comes to mind. By contrast, the best and most successful pedestrian streets are the ones that most closely resemble those in Hong Kong. Boston's Downtown Crossing is a tightly packed node of pedestrian streets lined by a variety of stores and, increasingly, residential and entertainment developments. Stephen Avenue in downtown Calgary is an attractive part-time pedestrian street that, in the summer months, attracts nearly 30,000 visitors per day. Calgary is far from the most urban or pedestrian-oriented city in Canada-if it can support such a thriving pedestrian street, then so can Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver. The secret is to pick the right street, design it well and make pedestrianization as flexible as possible.

Unfortunately, instead of focussing on which streets to pedestrianize and how, the debate over pedestrianization in Canada is aggravatingly superficial. Montreal is a particularly sorry case. In the few years that it took Hong Kong to transform dozens of streets into pedestrian havens, Montreal's pundits and government officials did little more than run in circles, arguing whether or not a pedestrian-first approach to planning is even justified. Interest in pedestrianization is strong, with increasing media focus on the matter and an ever-growing grassroots involvement in pedestrian causes, such as Car-Free Day and Mont-Royal Avenue Verte. Nevertheless, local officials stubbornly refuse to listen.

No city in Canada has a pedestrianization program as clear and straightforward as that of Hong Kong. Too many politicians are afraid of angering motorists by actively discouraging people from driving and so they choose instead to spout platitudes about using public transit and living sustainably, without actually doing anything about it. Record-high pollution levels and soaring gas prices are only a reminder of the need to make our cities more pedestrian-friendly.

For more information on Hong Kong's pedestrianization project, visit the Hong Kong Transport Department's excellent and very thorough website, which includes photos, maps, background and detailed information on specific streets and neighbourhoods.

Christopher DeWolf wanders our streets as Maisonneuve's urban affairs critic. His column appears twice a month. Read other recent columns by Christopher DeWolf.