Two close friends of Elodie Ma, the young woman killed by a runaway car in Soho last month, say they have gathered strong support from at least 50 local bars, restaurants and shops to pedestrianise parts of Soho in the evenings.
Sebastian Dauriac and Mathieu Alfandary say they were moved to take some action after the horrific crash that killed 27-year-old Ma and injured six others at the junction of Staunton Street and Peel Street.
Ma and a friend had been waiting for a table at Chom Chom restaurant and had been asked by staff to wait outside. The two friends were chatting when Ma was struck from behind by an unoccupied car careering backwards down Peel Street. She was fatally wounded while her friend reportedly suffered life-changing injuries.
The driver who parked the car, illegally, and who failed to properly secure the handbrake has been charged with dangerous driving causing death.
A month later, while mourning continues and friends discuss a mural in Ma’s memory, Dauriac and Alfandary have assembled a small group to prevent such a crash happening again.
“If we are sure about one thing, it is this fact: if there is no car, we can be sure this will never happen,” says Dauriac, speaking from The Hive Sheung Wan, where he, Alfandary and Elodie Ma shared co-working space.
Alfandary says it’s hard to understand why the government dropped its previous studies into pedestrianising the Soho district, but says it’s time to revive the plans. “Something has to be done for Elodie’s memory, they cannot close their eyes any more,” he says.
The first step for the pair has been gathering business support.
Dauriac says he spent the Christmas holidays canvassing Soho bars and restaurants to gauge reactions to a part-time pedestrianisation plan. He collected 51 signatures of support from owners and managers as well as pledges to help develop the plan from several well-known restaurateurs including Bobsy Gaia (MANA! SoHo) and Richard Feldman (Al’s Diner and Peak Cafe Bar).
The idea was warmly accepted with but a few objections. Chom Chom, where Ma was waiting when she was struck by the car, has not returned Dauriac’s calls and has not signed the letter of support.
And one restaurateur pointed out a private parking garage at the top of Peel Street that requires access.
“Of course that needs investigating,” says Dauriac. “But I showed him what we implemented in Europe, this kind of pillar [bollard] giving access only to residents. I showed him this, he said, it makes sense and he signed [the petition] directly.”
“We have many solutions on the table, which have been implemented in other countries,” he says.
Hailing from Bordeaux in France, Dauriac says he is shocked by the attitudes towards pedestrians in Hong Kong and says even Shenzhen and Shanghai are far ahead of the city in terms of street culture.
Alfandary agrees and says the traffic and pavements in Soho are unnerving. “There is no speed limit, there is no pedestrian crossing, the cars have total priority over pedestrians, which is totally strange to a European. In France when you have someone waiting on the sidewalk, the car stops. Here it is the opposite,” he says.
The friends plan a meeting in Soho next week to discuss how to take the idea forward – with no experience of dealing with Hong Kong’s authorities, they’ve enlisted the support of longstanding business leaders and even politician and urban campaigner Paul Zimmerman, District Councillor and CEO of Designing Hong Kong, to offer know-how and practical advice in getting the scheme on the government’s radar.
Restaurateur Bobsy Gaia says he will attend the meeting and throws his full support at the plan.
“I have seen many problems with cars, uneven and dangerous pavements, as well as many near hits and accidents over the decades in Soho,” he says.
Gaia says he worked with several others on a pedestrianisation plan back in 2005 for a feature published by the now-defunct HK Magazine (archived by SCMP here).
“Sadly the time back then was not ripe and it didn’t happen. Just imagine had we succeeded back then, how different SoHo would be today…”
Dauriac says he is optimistic despite previous failed efforts to pedestrianise the Soho area. “I do believe that looking at the past, our plan is not that realistic, but we owe Elodie that to try,” he says.