Feb 17, 2011|
Vehicles and pedestrians compete for street space all the time, their conflict of interest an everyday problem in this busy city. The Transport Department identifies 71 traffic hotspots, intersections where there are six or more pedestrian injury accidents or nine or more injury accidents in a one-year span, and/or two or more fatal traffic accidents in the last five years—and most of them are in West Kowloon.
What’s more, Hong Kong Police Force figures show that the number of traffic accidents in 2010 totaled 14,727, causing 113 deaths and leaving 1,961 people seriously injured. The largest number of accidents happened the area around Yau Ma Tei, Tsim Sha Tsui, Jordan and Mong Kok.
It’s a tricky situation, given that locals and tourists alike often wait what seems like ages for the light to turn green, choosing instead to risk their safety and dash across on a red when they see an opening in the interminable line of cars. But the government seems unwilling to implement measures, such countdown clocks and formal crosswalks, that would alleviate the problem.
District councilors say they receive complaints from their constituents about not having enough pedestrian crossings or traffic lights, so they warily monitor the traffic conditions in their jurisdictions.
“The intersection of Nathan Road and Argyle Street and [nearby] Mong Kok Road—these are the traffic black spots where accidents always happen,” says Hau Wing-cheong, chairman of the Yau Tsim Mong District Council’s Traffic and Transport Committee. “I can see many pedestrians crossing the road when the red light is on, and it’s really dangerous.”
Mong Kok is a prime example of the problem. Widely considered one of the most densely populated, crowded spots in the world, endless shops, restaurants and entertainment options keep the area chock-full of people. It’s a must-see on the tourist trail—and, Hau adds, people unfamiliar with the city are more likely not to follow rules. He often sees impatient mainlanders waiting for a green light scurry into the road, causing bus drivers to slam on the brakes, jolting passengers.
Locals acknowledge the problem, too. Ms. Cheung and Mr. Tse, who visit Mong Kok at least twice a week, say that the green lights stay on just eight or 10 seconds before flipping back to red, making it impossible for the barrage of pedestrians to cross the road. Jason, who works in a nearby boutique, has also observed scary street scenes: “Even adults who are holding babies or who have elderly people at their side are trying to run across the road. I remember once when a taxi driver even got out of his car and scolded an old lady of around 70 years old for not watching out. Accidents are prone to happen at any time here.”
The district councils, in fact, attempted to crack down on traffic problems some years ago. In 2003, the Transport Department installed countdown devices (which show how many seconds are left until the light flips to red) on pedestrian traffic lights in 95 spots across the territory on a trial basis; yet, in mid-2007, they were all dismantled.
A spokesperson from the Transport Department explains that the test run revealed that countdown clocks actually encouraged pedestrians to prematurely run across the street in an attempt to beat the timer as it ticked closer zero, thus putting them even more at risk. Given those findings, the department doesn’t support countdown devices on traffic lights.
Hau says he has suggested countdown clocks for vehicular traffic lights, but those were also vetoed by government officials, who said they could result in drivers dangerously rushing to beat the light.
Given the measures embraced by other cities, Hau remains puzzled. “It has been reported that Hong Kong’s neighbors, such as the mainland and Taiwan, have already installed countdown devices for both vehicular and pedestrian traffic lights,” he says. “I can’t see why it’s not feasible to have that in Hong Kong.”
Even a move like adding more traffic lights is a double-edged sword. A balance must be reached, Hau says, because it could benefit pedestrians by creating safe street space but also increase vehiclular congestion.
The government says it pays particularly close attention to the 71 traffic hotspots it tracks, carrying out studies on these locations, which see more traffic accidents, and analyzing common characteristics of the factors that contribute to them so as to make appropriate and necessary improvements. But some say the government is biased against pedestrians.
‘The government tends to favor the drivers, and they prefer keeping a smooth traffic flow rather than pedestrian flow,” says Nelson Wong Kin-shing, councilor from the Central and Western District Council. Until pedestrians or vehicle passengers get hurt, Wong says, officials don’t see the urgency to fix problems.
Wong recalls a time he visited Water Street, near Queen’s Road in Sai Ying Pun, for an inspection with the Transport Department officers. He had suggested adding a pedestrian crossing there after residents advocated for it, and while they were visiting they saw an old lady fall when she tried to dodge a speeding car. It was only then that a crosswalk was installed—and in just one year, not the four or five years it usually takes.
One more danger zone: the area around Lan Kwai Fong, which attracts some tens of thousands of people every day.
In rush hours, many get held up at the street by Yung Kee, the Crocs store and California Fitness, where Wellington Street, D’Aguilar Street and Wyndham Street all come together.
The Transport Department says it has studied the traffic and pedestrian flow patterns there, and as a result adjusted the footpath on Wellington Street approach to the junction in 2009. This arrangement helps slow down vehicle traffic from Wyndham Street and minimizes the crossing distance for pedestrians. The department also plans to install some railings near the Yung Kee building to keep pedestrians on the sidewalk, clearing the roadway.
Though it’s not a recognized hotspot, the intersection of Bonham Strand and Morrison Street in Sheung Wan is another place where the traffic never stops, especially before the workday starts and during lunch hour. Pedestrians stand at the roadside, waiting for minutes before they can cross the short road, which lacks a proper crosswalk or a light. But the Transport Department says it has to assess road type and condition, traffic flow, pedestrian flow, vehicular speed, traffic accident record, effects on road users (like road safety or time delay)—all before they can decide whether to install a crosswalk or a light. When it comes to the Sheung Wan junction, though, the department says it would frequently hold up traffic, so it doesn’t recommend it.
But if it paid more attention to the needs of those on foot, maybe it would.