Hong Kong’s disabled are being left out of the smart city conversations, says LegCo primary candidate Lee Chi-yung, arguing that innovations from navigation apps to ridesharing ignore the needs of wheelchair users.
Lee, 40, knows his topic intimately and tragically – his own daughter, Lee Yin-man, whom Lee called “Princess”, had severe a disability and used a wheelchair for her daily commute. She passed away two years ago.
The candidate for New Territories East now calls for sweeping reform, including legalising wheelchair taxis, allowing wheelchairs in cycle lanes, improving barrier-free access at transport facilities and bus stops and making sure wheelchair routes are covered by map apps.
Perhaps Lee’s most controversial proposal is licensing for electric wheelchair users. At present, electric wheelchairs are tolerated yet illegal in Hong Kong – the government has proposed considering allowing “personal mobility aids”, as it calls them, on footpaths, but not on cycle paths or roads, and debate is ongoing.
“A licensing system has to be introduced” says Lee, suggesting that NGOs establish e-wheelchair courses focused on safety and control. “Participants who have completed the course would be recognised with a licencse – the test need not be too complex,” he says. The government should subside the cost of the courses and licencse costs for low-income families too, he adds.
Bringing wheelchairs into the “smart city”
Lee says wheelchair access is one of the most pressing problems in Hong Kong’s transport system, often neglected in point-to-point transport planning and navigation apps.
While the city debates new modes of ridesharing such as Uber, Lee believes disabled people have been left out of the conversation. “Wheelchair users seldom hire Uber, GoGoVan or Lalamove as most of the vehicles are not wheelchair-accessible. They don’t have a lower platform and the compartments are too tiny,” he says.
Lee says that, if elected, he will call for more bus and cab providers to serve disabled people, helping disabled commuters move away from illegal pak pai (白牌) cab services. “The pak pai’s are safe to use and the platforms are recognised by EMSD as safe, but the vehicles are not allowed to carry passengers for hire or reward,” he says. “A licence system that included the pak pai could open up more transport options for disabled people,” he says.
And in other technology, wheelchair users (and others on wheels such as parents with strollers) are often ignored in navigation apps. “Google maps is widely used in Hong Kong, bur the suggested routes are often unclear or incorrect and not accessible – so wheelchair users have to ride on the road,” he says. Lee proposes that Transport Department cooperate with service providers to help those with physical mobility issues navigate the city safely,” says Lee.
Meanwhile other more basic needs are still unmet in many parts of the city. “Every building or housing estate should have a decent bus stop for wheelchair users,” he says. “When the weather is bad, especially in the rain, wheelchair users always find it hard to get onto the vehicle. A better designed bus stop would have shelter and enough space for the operation of electric platforms.”
“The connection between the ramp and the road should be well built and smooth,” he continues. “There are ramps that are not well-constructed, with gap in-between that can cause accidents. More ramps would be ideal; otherwise wheelchair users have to go around to the station or even on the road.”
Lee, who previously lived in Tai Po where he used a bike daily, also believes wheelchair users should be able to use bike lanes, which are ready-made for wheeled access. “There are not too many kerbs [on the bike lanes], which make it convenient,” he says. “Plus, bicycle paths are well connected to different areas, especially in the New Territories, allowing the use for wheelchairs would provide one more option for disabled people’s daily commutes.”
And to encourage more cyclists, bike parking is paramount, he says. “Bike parking should be separated for different types of bicycles, for shared bikes and privately-owned bikes. This could avoid the serious illegal parking in the New Territories when the shared bike companies launched a couple of years ago.”
Lee’s primary, like all geographic constituency primaries this weekend, will be fiercely contested: he faces 11 other primary candidates, including lawmaker and chief executive of the Democratic Party Lam Cheuk-ting, veteran activist and former lawmaker Leung “Longhair” Kwok-hung, high-profile lawmaker Ray Chan Chi-chuen and journalist Gwyneth Ho Kwai-lam, as well as a raft of elected district councillors all vying for the candidacy.