Opinion

MOVING WITH SOCIAL DISTANCE IN HONG KONG

An activist measures out a temporary cycle lane in Dresden, Germany

Activists measure out temporary cycle lanes in Dresden, Germany

Cities around the world are currently taking emergency measures to enable safe walking in streets during the coronavirus pandemic.

With urban commuters frequently wary of crowded public transport, city governments and activists alike are encouraging people to walk and cycle: both are safe modes of mobility during a pandemic, protecting individual and public health.

Examples are plentiful. In Oakland, California, some 74 miles of streets will be closed to through traffic as part of a programme called Oakland Slow Streets that started on Saturday.

Cyclists in a temporary protected cycle lane in Berlin

Cyclists in a temporary protected cycle lane in Berlin, Germany

In Berlin, the head of transport has initiated a series of “pop up lanes” for non-motorised modes of transport, created within days in collaboration with city districts and the community. These pop-up lanes for the most valuable road users (as we like to call them) are now adopted in cities across Europe, with the hope that these temporary measures could convince urban planners and transport officials to eventually create an equitable distribution of road space. In fact, more than 100 cities in Germany are busy creating pop-up lanes, sometimes organised by mayors, sometimes by citizen groups.

In Brookline, Massachusetts, planners will temporarily re-configure certain streets to better accommodate the need for social distancing among pedestrians. The town transportation board voted to change the pedestrian walkway configurations on four high-density streets to allow walkers ample space to move while remaining at least six feet apart from one another.

“Even with people staying home in significant numbers, there is still a natural need for walkable space and we want to give residents as much space as possible while vehicular traffic is low and the need for physical distance among pedestrians is high,” says Brookline Transportation Administrator Todd Kirrane. “What’s important to remember, however, is that this is not designed as an invitation for more people to go outside — rather it’s meant to enable those who have to go outside to commute to work or do essential shopping to do so in the safest way possible.”

One researcher, Dr Tab Combs, has even created a live spreadsheet of initiatives around the world, with over 100 entries to dates. Combs says she started partly out of curiosity. “Street reallocation seemed like a thing that might be happening given the lack of motor vehicle traffic and the lack of adequate walking/biking space common in US cities, and I was curious to learn whether that was true, and if my town might want to jump on board… (evidently it does not),” she says.

The spreadsheet has quickly become something beyond a personal research project, and is now being used by Combs’ colleagues at the University of North Carolina’s Pedestrian & Bicycle Information Center (PBIC) and the Collaborative Sciences Center for Road Safety (CSCRS) to track how communities adapt to rapidly changing demands. “Ultimately it will enable an evaluation of how society responds to those adaptations in the long run,” she says.

Pedestrian compliance

How can cities comply with the social distancing of 1.5 m for pedestrians on footpaths?

A tape measure over a pavement in Hong Kong, showing it to be narrower than 60cm

Many Hong Kong pavements are narrower than the 120cm recommended by Highways Department, particularly when illegal construction hoardings or illegally parked cars encroach on pedestrian space

Social distancing measures in Hong Kong are likely to continue for some time, aimed at preventing a community outbreak – the government just announced a two-week extension and more are expected. As such, government action to implement safe walking is urgently required. Such measures would achieve a far greater public health impact than closing fitness studios or other establishments, as almost everyone, on some level, needs to use the streets.

Footpaths in Hong Kong on many streets are notoriously narrow and crowded, and often less than 1.5 m wide, even on larger roads. Extending the footpath onto the streets, however, can be easily achieved with painted lines or traffic cones.

In Toronto, urban geographer and artist Daniel Rotsztain created the “social distancing machine” for pedestrians, which he used to create awareness about the unequal distribution of street space in Toronto. How far would one get with such a social distancing machine on Hong Kong busy streets?

These are all issues for Hong Kong to address, and the time is now. The pandemic is “de-mobilising” the world, reducing all forms of transport, from international flights to walking. There is a unique and huge opportunity for local leaders to shape sustainable mobility policies which can increase urban resilience, locally and globally.

This article was contributed by Waltraut Ritter, Knowledge Dialogues

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