The success of a green-lit hillside escalator will depend on its adoption by students and school staff in the district, according to District Councillor Paul Zimmerman, speaking to RTHK after Chief Executive Carrie Lam approved the controversial Braemar Hill Pedestrian Link project.
The escalator link will whisk pedestrians some 100 metres up steep Braemar Hill with a series of walkways, ramps, escalators and lifts from Fortress Hill MTR station to Wai Tsui Crescent and Braemar Hill Road. Zimmerman said the project has a lot of potential to reduce congestion in the district, which, he says, is a “very private-car oriented residential area”. But he said the key to extracting full benefit would be encouraging students to use the system in conjunction with the MTR.
Braemar Hill is home to dozens of schools – it houses a third of the Eastern District’s secondary schools, four primary schools and Hong Kong Shue Yan University, giving a student and staff population of around 18,500 coming in and out for study under normal school conditions, against a district population of only around 16,000.
At present, the pedestrian connection between busy Kings Road and Braemar Hill is a challenge for residents and students alike. Disconnected flights of steps offer shortcuts between winding hairpin roads, reducing exposure to road pollution and danger. But less able walkers may not be able to commit to sometimes hundreds of steps, and, especially in warm weather, such walking represents substantial exercise for even the fit.
The plan was one of 114 hillside links proposed in 2009 under the government’s early steps in a walkability programme: but red-tape snarled up most of those plans, with only five completed to date. In 2017, under fire from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, the government hired a consultant to come up with a new scoring system to kick-start the selection process and in 2019, published a hillside escalator league table, with Braemar Hill taking second spot out of 18 shortlisted projects.
The plan was pushed forward again in 2019, with support from the then-District Councillor Jenny Li Chun-chau, who said the escalators would be good for the local ageing population.
But newly elected District Councillors in the area now oppose the project. A coalition led by Jason Chan Ka-yau, Fortress Hill District Councillor, demands more consultation. “During the eight years of the original plan, extensive consultation was not conducted and project details, including project schematics and construction plans, were difficult to find” said Chan in a written submission at a District Council meeting earlier this year.
Chan said the local community had made alternative proposals which had been ignored by the District Council in 2018, and called for immediate suspension of all funding, together with a new public consultation and a slope safety assessment in the district.
However, the government says three proposals were run through the new scoring system, including the successful project proposal and two rejected plans, a link from Fortress Hill MTR to Cloud View Road; and a link from North Point MTR to Braemar Hill Road.
Meanwhile Tam Pui-tak, representing apartment owners in nearby residential block Fortress Garden, complained that consultations only began after the government had sanctioned a preliminary design, leading to a “natural lack of confidence” in the project. “The provision of another two lifts is indeed a luxury and a squander of public funds”, Tam wrote in objection to the project after the government published its plans last year. Tam cited design manuals that state that no ramp should be steeper than 1 in 12, to prevent wheelchair users from tipping over: the gradient in the plans, as claimed by Tam, is 1 in 10, which he claims is sub-standard. “The ‘barrier-free’ concept cannot be used as a pretext to design this uphill project,” he said. “The concept is nothing more than a slogan.”
While some battle the project, Zimmerman remains upbeat on the concept. “Anything that makes walking easier in the city, I welcome it,” he told RTHK. “It also improves the fitness of people,” he said. “You’ve taken the slog out of [the hill] but you’ll still get a lot of exercise out of it.”