In Hong Kong, the Pedestrian Fences Are Political

Hong Kong’s pedestrian fences are ubiquitous. The long gray metal barriers hem sidewalks all over this highly compact city, from the busy commercial corridors of Kowloon to the downtown financial district of Central to the Sai Ying Pun area around China’s official Liaison Office. 

Installed to separate the city’s packed walkways from its packed streets, the railings are widely disliked. Many of them prevent pedestrians from walking in a straight line along major roads by prohibiting direct crossing of perpendicular side streets, since that would force turning cars to slow down. Those who want to walk faster than the shuffling crowds must go into the street, exposing them to vehicle traffic. Set more than a foot back from the curb, the railings also reduce the usable area of the already narrow sidewalks. In a rainstorm, the battles of battering umbrellas between streams of penned-in people moving in opposite directions can be epic.

Despite the complaints, in less than a decade the city government more than doubled its installation of pedestrian rails, from 730 kilometers (454 miles) in 2010 to 1,500 kilometers by 2018 — the equivalent to the driving distance from New York to Jacksonville, Florida.

But during the pro-democracy street protests that upended Hong Kong over the past year, demonstrators managed to uproot or dismantle 60 kilometers, or 40 miles, of railings. Some were piled up along with other objects and temporary traffic barriers to barricade roads and halt police advance. Other forms of city infrastructure were also targeted, including camera-equipped “smart” streetlights that were destroyed in acts of anti-surveillance resistance. 

On this front, at least, the protests succeeded in accomplishing something that Hong Kong residents had been demanding for years. Some citizens expressed relief on social media at being able to walk freely where fences had once stood. Pedestrian advocates called on the government to leave them down. “The Hong Kong Government is mad for barriers,” reads a statement by Walk DVRC, a nonprofit group that aims to promote walkability, particularly in the downtown Central district. “The city seems determined to cordon off and partition everything from playgrounds to parks.” 

Instead, Hong Kong’s Transport Department and Highways Department is doubling down on the barriers, spending an estimated HK$15 million ($1.9 million) rebuilding and reinforcing the fencing. In the interim, they’ve strung bright red or yellow plastic chains to the remaining posts to indicate that the railings will soon be reinstalled. These, too, have been the target of pedestrian protests: It’s not uncommon to see them cut in half. 

“There’s just not enough space left for pedestrians,” says Paul Zimmerman, a district councilor and a member of a government advisory commission to improve urban design and public access to the harborfront. “Our situation in the street is so tight and narrow. They put in these railings where people really get squeezed into corners.”

Zimmerman is also the co-founder and CEO of Designing Hong Kong, a nonprofit that promotes sustainable urban planning. He’s perhaps the city’s fiercest sidewalk-fence critic. To him, the barriers are emblematic of the way Hong Kong streets are built to prioritize vehicles over pedestrians.

Why is Hong Kong so railing-crazy? Zimmerman says the seemingly endless fencing reflects transportation guidelines and manuals from the U.K. that date back to the 1970s, when the city was a British colony. Since then, many cities in the U.K. and Europe —  including the Netherlands, where Zimmerman was born — have adopted more progressive planning policies that emphasize walkability and limit road space for vehicles. But when Hong Kong’s sovereignty was transferred to China in 1997, some old ways were left behind. 

Zimmerman has been working with the Transport Department to identify sites where railings aren’t needed and has managed to get a few removed, including in a car-free area near the harborfront. He points to parts of town such as Lan Kwai Fong, a bar district in Central networked by a hash of narrow streets and low vehicle traffic, to show that roads shared by cars and pedestrians on barrier-free sidewalks can work. There is willingness within certain parts of the Transport Department to make the city more walkable, Zimmerman says.

Yet a joint statement by the Transport and Highways departments says that the railings are critical “to regulate and guide pedestrians for road safety and traffic management purposes.” The city did remove some of them this year “because of changes in circumstances,” it says. They declined to say how many.

In one the world’s most crowded cities, it’s not hard to see how keeping barriers between walkers and drivers might be seen as essential. Hong Kong’s population density is even higher than it appears in the official data, because a shocking 75% of the neon-lit city is green space: The population is largely crammed in around the coast and lower-lying areas. The Kowloon area’s population density of 49,000 people per square kilometer is nearly double the 27,600 that fit into the same amount of space in Manhattan. 

But critics say the safety benefits of pedestrian railings, which are too flimsy to fend off cars, may give both drivers and pedestrians a false sense of security. A 2017 Transport for London study looked at 70 sites after sidewalk guardrails were removed in 2011 and found that crashes resulting in deaths or serious injuries dropped 56% after the railings were removed, as a result of increased vigilance by all road users. 

Hong Kong’s Transport and Highways departments didn’t respond to a question asking why they’re not taking the updated U.K. traffic management surveys into account. 

Even in a city where less than 10% of the population owns a car, Zimmerman’s anti-fence advocacy puts him at odds with other elected officials. In an infamous illustration of the disconnect between citizens and high-ranking politicians, Carrie Lam, the city’s chief executive, once had to be shown how to enter the city’s subway system using an Octopus Card, the fare payment system that 95% of Hong Kong’s adult population uses. (Lam later denied that she didn’t know how.) 

Zimmerman blames the city’s reluctance to revise its pedestrian policy on a bureaucracy that’s geared toward keeping things as they are. Once a railing is put up by a previous official in charge, the subsequent official is wary of taking it down, mainly for liability reasons, he suggests. “They’re very scared of removing the railings. What if something happens?” 

Meanwhile, the fences continue to go back up — the city says it has now “completed most of the fencing reinstatement.” The smart streetlamps are back up as well. Other signs of the protests, such as anti-government graffiti and vandalized traffic lights, have been scrubbed or repaired. 

In some respects, the state of pedestrianism in Hong Kong is a window into the forces that fueled the unrest of 2019, as well as the recent crackdowns on dissent and political expression that resulted. The government could have taken note of where people had cut the red and yellow plastic chains and used that as a referendum to see where pedestrians most desire change, says Zimmerman, but it hasn’t.

“In Hong Kong, like everything else we do here, the laws, guidelines and design manuals are really old,” Zimmerman says. “You really need a dramatic mindset change on these issues.” 

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