Highways Department (HyD) has proposed setting up a new “walkability office” with four directors and 89 officers to reinvigorate over 500 pedestrian infrastructure projects pushed to the bottom of the pile by cross-boundary highway project workloads.
Reporting to the Director of Highways, the director of the new Walkability Project Management Office (WPMO) would kickstart construction of around 160 “barrier free” facilities such as lifts, elevated walkways and subways at Housing Authority and hospital sites; as well as review more than 120 stalled or newly proposed hillside escalator projects; and manage the second round of the “walkway cover projects” to be submitted by District Councils in 2021.
The new team will also take responsibility for new way-finding projects with Transport Department (TD), and work on rearranging traffic signs and removing non-essential railings in Central and Sham Shui Po under the “Walk Hong Kong” pilot project proposals.
HyD says it never before assigned staff directly to support Hong Kong’s “Walk in HK” policy, a failure that the department now says has been “undesirable and has affected the progress of these projects which benefits [sic] the public”. The department says its existing senior engineers and directors are busy with urgent workloads from cross-boundary highway projects, including the Tuen Mun-Chep Lap Kok Link project, the remaining works of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai Macao Bridge and Route 11 between North Lantau and Yuen Long.
The new WPMO will focus on construction as a walkability solution, and the new director will be required to encourage “the adoption of Building Information Modelling, Modular Integrated Construction and Early Contractor Involvement,” says a HyD brief.
However, some city economists have warned that built pedestrian infrastructure can often sideline pedestrians. Writing for think-tank City Observatory, economist Joe Cortright writes “much of what is labelled pedestrian infrastructure is in reality car infrastructure.”
“Those elaborate and expensive pedestrian bridges are at best a remedial effort to minimize the danger [such environments] pose to anyone who isn’t in a car. They don’t really make the area any more desirable for walking,” he writes.
But HyD says the new WPMO would not only allow the city to get “Walk in HK” back on track, after years of neglect, but will also boost public demand for new “walkable city” projects.
Lawmakers push back
At a Transport Panel meeting last Friday (20 November), Legislative Councillors in general supported the idea of walkability projects, but many questioned why the WPMO needed four permanent director-level posts, and asked if such a structure could really speed up the walkability work.
Shiu Ka-fai said if we compared Hong Kong’s pedestrianisation progress to Shenzhen, “we should hang our heads in shame.”
Michael Luk Chung-hung said there was no need for such a “top heavy” department and called for HyD to create more opportunities for young people at the middle level.
Director of Highways, Jimmy Chan Pai-ming, responded that more directorate-level officers were needed to discuss land and housing issues associated with projects. Directorate-level posts could also help resolve conflicting views by residents on, for example, locations of hillside escalator routes, said Chan.
But lawmaker Regina Ip said junior HyD staff should be better trained to handle such disputes and processes.
Under HyD’s proposals, the director of WPMO will earn HK$2.7m, while three WPMO Chief Engineers will each earn HK$1.9m. The engineers will be supported with 12 non-directorate posts averaging around HK$950k each; while 77 existing staff will be redeployed to support “walkable city” projects.
Transport Panel chair Frankie Yick Chi-ming said HyD needed to address lawmakers’ questions and suggestions for supernumerary posts rather than creating a permanent directorships, and said discussion would continue.