Private initiative calls for top-down support for Central pedestrianisation bid

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Walk DVRC Limited, a high-powered NGO, urges Chief Executive Carrie Lam to back plans to pedestrianise Des Voeux Road Central. Vehicles would be banned from the 1.4-kilometre stretch of road, but trams would remain running.

(Photo credit: Bryan Ho)

Des Voeux Road Central (DVRC) is infamous for pedestrians jostling each other for space and dangerous jaywalking during lunch hours and weekends. Combined with the canyon effect of neighbouring skyscrapers trapping toxic vehicular emissions, a walk along any section of DVRC is a less-than-pleasant experience.

This prompted plans to banish cars from DVRC, which go back to as far as 2000. The Hong Kong Institute of Planners initially proposed to establish a pedestrian precinct in the heart of the city’s central business district (CBD). In order to transform the area into a walking destination, a 1.4-kilometre stretch of DVRC would become free of vehicular traffic, including private cars, taxis and buses, though trams would continue running through the street.

The plan gained traction in 2016 when it was rebranded as Walk DVRC with a trial pedestrianisation of Des Voeux Road Central launched in September that year. A 200-metre long section of the street was closed off to traffic on a Sunday afternoon, and a wide variety of activities spanning across arts, sports, culture and urban lifestyle were held in the temporary public space. Although the event merely lasted 6 hours, it attracted over 14,000 visitors and was well received by the public.

Markus Shaw, chairman of Walk DVRC, said on Monday (28 August) that the campaign was still awaiting a comprehensive transport study costing an estimated $1.5 million to investigate the impacts pedestrianisation would have on traffic flows in the area. He said the campaign already has the support of many local retailers, property developers, Hong Kong Tramways and the community at large. Bus companies have yet to voice their opinions, though the project would mean rerouting dozens of key bus routes.

Hong Kong is no stranger to the closure of major thoroughfares. The 2014 Occupy Protests led to the highly contentious de facto pedestrianisation of a section of Connaught Road Central and Harcourt Road for almost three months. The once heavily polluted and inaccessible motorway became a mecca of individual political and artistic expression. No longer bearing the weight of endless streams of buses, cars and lorries, the tarmac became an ad hoc forum for public discussions (or brawls on occasions), shelter for protesters, and battleground between authorities and activists.

Regardless of the Movement’s political outcome, it provided Hongkongers with a glimpse of what pedestrianisation means for the city. Levels of PM 2.5 particulate matter recorded at the sites fell beneath the recommended safety levels of the World Health Organisation, and the streets were transformed into a temporary public space. This came at the cost of major tailbacks stretching for miles across Hong Kong Island and Kowloon as traffic was diverted.

It remains an uncertain question whether Walk DVRC’s proposals would severely worsen congestion on the already crowded roads of Hong Kong Island. Earlier in 2015, a proposal to scrap trams from the streets of Central in order to ease congestion was shelved following major public backlash. With the completion of the Central—Wanchai Bypass and the MTR Shatin to Central Link, DVRC’s role as an east-to-west vehicular thoroughfare will become less important, whilst it is seeing increasing pedestrian traffic.

However, it is worthy to note that comparisons between Walk DVRC and Occupy are not entirely fair. Occupy’s nature, at the end of the day, was a political movement that happened to also be an experiment on urban planning. Walk DVRC would require much more substantial and comprehensive planning and studies in order to make it practically feasible.

Shaw pointed out that mayoral support has always been the key to successful pedestrianisation projects across the world. The globally-renowned “Crossroads of the World”, Times Square, was transformed into a permanent pedestrian plaza by New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2013. Meanwhile, Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is backing a daring proposal to transform one of Europe’s busiest shopping precincts, Oxford Street. The 2-kilometre stretch of road shares many similarities with DVRC, especially in terms of its location in the heart of the urban core with numerous bus routes passing through.

Shaw was confident that examples in New York, London and many other cities around the world demonstrate that Walk DVRC is achievable and would bring long-term social and economic benefits to the city. Hong Kong’s historic urban core would gain a much-needed strip of open public space that has the potential to become a landmark tourist attraction. There would be improved connectivity between the prime office areas of Core Central, the entertainment district of SoHo, and the heritage area of Sheung Wan.

The last piece of the puzzle in this ambitious project is gaining the government’s full support. The Transport Department is currently concerned about the traffic impacts of closing off the entire stretch of DVRC, but Shaw suggested that are probable plans to begin pedestrianising a short section near Hillier Street in Sheung Wan. However, he insisted that support needs to come from top down in order for the entire project to come to fruition. He was hopeful that he would be able to convince high levels of government to support Walk DVRC’s initiative, as Chief Executive (then Chief Secretary) Carrie Lam recognised the importance improving walkability in Hong Kong in her opening speech during the Walk 21 Conference in November last year.