Learning From a Streets Renaissance in Hong Kong

If New York or other large cities are looking for a solution to congestion and its negative impact on the economy, Hong Kong offers an excellent strategy and success story. I was there a few weeks back working on waterfront issues (that rival New York City for unrealized opportunities), and was struck by changes that have taken place since my previous visit five years earlier. In 2001, there were few streets or districts that were comfortable to walk in or engage with despite being known as a bustling shopping city. In the intervening time the city has undergone a major transformation led by non other than the city’s Transport Department.

With perhaps the densest downtown in the world, Hong Kong is meeting its livability goals and addressing its congestion problems by strategically reclaiming streets as public spaces.

Hong Kong, even more than New York, is a city run by and for business interests, and its buildings, streets and public spaces have increasingly reflected this dominance. It is exactly this imbalance that makes it all the more impressive and relevant to New York City that the Hong Kong Transport Department has in the last few years seized the initiative to make its congested streets more pedestrian-friendly.

A high vehicle demand street in the Causeway Bay district of Hong Kong has not only been narrowed with various traffic calming measures, but it is completely closed to cars evenings and weekends.

In each of ten central districts the city has chosen to do a combination of traffic calming and permanent and part-time street closings. For instance, in the Causeway Bay area, the city has transformed a district of isolated, internally focused shopping centers into a unified shopping district with the streets as the main focus.

Green signifies full-time pedestrian streets, blue part-time and Yellow traffic calmed.

One of the commercial shopping centers is even called Times Square, highlighting the point that similar improvements could easily be made in New York City’s Times Square. Closing streets in Times Square at specific times, like when the theaters get out, would be a boon for the district on many levels.

A temporary street closing is on a "Trial Run" near Hong Kong’s Times Square shopping center.

Hong Kong thinks of itself as Asia’s capital city, just as New York City sees itself as the primary city of North America. In recent years Hong Kong’s centrality has been threatened by increasing congestion and diminishing quality of life. Businesses and workforce talent have been threatening to move to the Chinese mainland and other Asian cites like Singapore, Taipei, Shanghai and Tokyo. In response to that threat, Hong Kong is choosing to squeeze the private automobile out of its downtown.

A city that once had almost no space for walking and where tourists, business travelers and residents dreaded its transportation system now has speedy and efficient mass transit and nice public spaces.

Double-decker trolleys and buses carry the bulk of trips on Hong Kong’s streets.

Octopus_card.jpgThe streets still carry an extraordinary amount of capacity but it mostly consists of buses, trolleys and taxis. Hong Kong also improves on our Metro Cards with its Octopus Cards that do not even need to be swiped, but can just be briefly held over the turnstile. Like the Metro Card, the Octopus Cards have boosted ridership, efficiency and pride in the city’s transport system.

Hong Kong is not a city that New York has historically looked to for inspriation, but this global commerce capital is creatively addressing many of the same challenges that New York City currently faces. I personally would not be an advocate of permanently pedestrianizing all that many streets in New York but closing streets temporarily in shopping areas during lunch hours, evenings and weekends would certainly work in Soho, Chinatown and a number of other selected spots. Why aren’t we trying it out?

Traffic Calming and removing parking in many of the areas where we are trying to encourage walking, shopping, and better quality of life would also make a ton of sense.  I’m sure the folks in Hong Kong said it could never be done. Well, they’re doing it. And it’s working.  

Here are some before and after images from Hong Kong:





  • Clarence

    Wow! Cool!

  • Mitch

    Is coolness additive or multiplicative?

    Double-decker buses are cool.

    Streetcars are cool.

    So, are double-decker streetcars doubly cool or quadruply cool? Just wondering.

  • someguy

    add in the pedestrian spaces and aesthetically pleasing streetscape design and it becomes infinity, thus blowing your mind!

  • Clarence

    I’d like to see NYC this cool.

  • Double-decker trolleys: We have GOT to get some of those!

  • Hasan Jafri

    I grew up here, and returned recently — with my American dog — to find the place completely transformed. Not only does it have public places, it has also become dog-friendly! Pretty amazing stuff, given the old Hong Kong of just a few years ago. I think Hong Kong is a model, in many ways, not just for NYC but also for smaller U.S. cities, like my native Seattle, all of whom are grappling with the challenges of keeping downtowns vibrant while balancing the needs of motorists and pedetsrians.

  • cecilBK

    The coolest part of HK’s pedestrian infrastructure is a series of public-use escalators (HK is built basically on the side of a mountain) that take you from near the waterfront up through the commercial district. During the morning commute, people can swipe their octopus card at a kiosk along the way for a small credit to their account (not sure how much it is, but pretty sure it’s nominal). And– there is no escalator in the NYC subway system kept as clean or well-maintained as these (though, truth be told, HK has no TWU to keep up the wages of those performing that job).

    Not to mention the extensive use of pedestrian overpasses on most of the major thoroughfares… plus the over-street connections that bring you from one shopping mall to another. HK is really the most pedestrian-friendly city I’ve seen. And don’t get me started on the subway system…

  • someguy

    Pedestrian overpasses are only beneficial in very few scenarios. Usually they are to the detriment of the overall street environment, which hurts pedestrians, as does the way they enforce a notion that only cars have a right to the public right-of-way and pedestrians need to accomodate the cars, not vice versa. Just wanted to toss that in there for cecilBK’s comments.

  • anon

    When talking about Asian megacities like HK, Bangkok or Singapore, the American experience with ped overpasses is not instructive. In urban Asia, density means that street life happens on multiple levels – the second floors of shopping centers in Bangkok and Singapore, for example, are connected to the shops next door and across the street (and to the elevated rail line). But there is just such a staggering number of pedestrians that ground-level street life is not necessarily ruined.

    Each city is different of course: HK seems to be managing its streets for livability and economic growth, while Bangkok treats many of its major streets as ped-hostile traffic sewers, often banning at-grade crossings… and yet sidewalk life still manages to flourish because of the high pedestrian density.

    In the US, urban designers are rightly sensitive to the idea that ped overpasses and passages can create a kind of analagous, semi-privatized circulation system that saps street life… but that’s because we have so much less building and pedestrian density to work with.

  • My wife and I have always said we’ll visit Hong Kong again. Hong Kong is undeniably one of the leading tourist destinations all across the world. Last time we planned Hong Kong holiday with the help of http://www.lavacanza.in/Hong-Kong-holiday/d62


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