As Dennis Wu sat with hundreds of people in the middle of a busy Hong Kong street recently, the scene felt to him like the pro-democracy protests of 2014 all over again.
Except that Wu, an 18-year-old student, and those around him were not looking over their shoulders, worried about a police crackdown. This time they were taking part in a car-free experiment in Hong Kong’s Central district, where the protests erupted two years ago and blockaded the area from traffic for weeks.
“The only difference is the mood,” he recalled.
Though the protests petered out without achieving their goals, they showed that Central, a busy financial district usually clogged with vehicles, was much more pleasant without traffic. After the initial chaos of the demonstrations subsided, a nearly mile-long stretch of a busy thoroughfare turned into a public space fertile with ideas and aspirations.
Protesters and their supporters set up makeshift study rooms, libraries and even a roadside organic farm. Office workers took strolls in the tent city, freed from the usual debilitating sound of roaring bus engines and the choking smell of exhaust.
Patrick Fung, chief executive of Clean Air Network, one of the organizers of the car-free experiment, said the demonstrations had inspired residents to rethink Hong Kong’s lack of pedestrian-friendly areas.
“At least during the protests, people did enjoy the freedom of a public space, having their lunch and biking there,” Fung said. “Many of them said the air quality was good, and the commute time between places was improved.”
Last year, his group formed an alliance with several academic and environmental groups to advocate turning the greater part of the Des Voeux Road Central, a main thoroughfare near the 2014 protest sites, into a pedestrian and tram-only precinct. (The trams run on electricity and have no tailpipe emissions.)
Renderings in their proposal depict a version of the road that almost seems too good to be true: grass-lined tram tracks, restaurants with outdoor seating and people relaxing rather than grumbling their way through the crowd.
The alliance hopes to replicate the success of pedestrian zones in Times Square in New York; La Rambla in Barcelona, Spain; and Martin Place in Sydney, Australia. By holding a trial run, the organizers hoped to move the needle by giving the public a taste — albeit a limited one — of their vision.
On a Sunday in late September, one side of a 650-foot stretch of Des Voeux Road Central, lined with banks and cha chaan tengs (茶餐廳), or Hong Kong-style diners, was closed to traffic.
There were music and dance performances, art displays and activities catering to children. But the most popular attraction seemed to be sitting on the artificial grass and chatting, without pressure to move along.
Many people said that they found the experience refreshing and that they yearned for more public space like this.
“I used to work here — I’m surprised that it’s possible to make this a relaxing place,” said Rachel Chan, who had brought along her 8-year-old daughter. “We’re constantly living in such a stressful, overcrowded environment that it’s refreshing to have more space like this.”
Eric Schuldenfrei, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong who has developed design concepts for the proposal, said the event allowed the public to use the city streets creatively. He said that was an increasingly common experience in many great cities but lacking in Hong Kong.
“People were not simply moving through the city, but actually using the road in order to meet, have a conversation and participate in each other’s events,” Schuldenfrei said. “As simple as this sounds, it is an element that has been lost in Hong Kong.”
Schuldenfrei said that if Hong Kong wanted to attract more tourists, it had to offer them “a range of experiences.”
“Simply walking on a city street is an experience that is beginning to disappear in Central,” he added.
The initiative, known as Very DVRC, after the road’s initials, has also seized on the business and tourism selling points of the plan.
Donald Choi, managing director of Nan Fung Development, a property developer, said he was on board with the idea.
“I couldn’t imagine a better proposal than this,” he said at a panel discussion last year, when the group unveiled its plan. “It’s something that will generate a lot of interest, a lot of attraction, not only for tourists but also for local residents and users.”
Choi, who works in Central, said the air pollution, the roar of engines and the congested sidewalks made the street so unpleasant that he tried to avoid it by taking an overhead walkway farther away.
“People couldn’t even stop in front of shops to look at shop windows,” he said. “You’re constantly pushed. It’s very congested.”
CONGESTION AND AIR POLLUTION
The idea of turning nearly a mile of the road into a permanent pedestrian and tram-only zone was first proposed in 2000 by the Hong Kong Institute of Planners, a professional organization, but has drawn broader attention in recent years as air pollution and congestion have worsened.
In 2014, the Hong Kong government undertook a study of possible solutions, proposing this March to charge drivers for access.
Even as the Hong Kong government has acknowledged the proposal’s potential to improve air quality, official responses to the plan have not boded well for any immediate change, as authorities have demanded a detailed feasibility report and traffic analysis.
Unlike several other smaller areas of the city where the government has temporarily restricted vehicle access — like the steep streets in the Lan Kwai Fong entertainment district — Des Voeux Road Central is home to dozens of bus stations and many intersections.
When asked about the proposal in January, Anthony Cheung Bing-leung, Hong Kong’s transport minister, said the proposal would divert vehicles “to nearby roads with more residential flats, which equally cast impact on the air quality of the residential areas concerned and bring about noises.”
Despite the lukewarm official response, Fung, the head of Clean Air Network, said he was encouraged that 13,000 people had visited the stretch of road that Sunday. His group hopes to build public support for more traffic-free days.
“We started small, but from here we can double or triple our scale,” he said.
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