Friends of slain French woman Elodie Ma, who was killed by a runaway car in Soho a year ago, say nothing has changed in the dense nightlife area, with Transport Department just “giving the same speech” about improving the environment for pedestrians.
Ma’s tragic death on 10 December last year re-ignited decades-old calls for pedestrianisation in the area and even prompted Transport Department to quietly delete all evidence of a $13 million dollar consultancy into a car-free scheme which might have saved the 27-year-old’s life.
A year on, Ma’s close friend Sebastian Dauriac has led a small group of campaigners, including restaurateurs and a district councillor, in discussing the best ways forward to develop a safer and more pleasant environment in Soho.
As a result of the group’s labours, a few small improvements have been seen on the narrow streets: a sign and road markings reminding drivers to share the space with pedestrians as a “pedestrian priority zone”, and double-yellow lines on one side of upper Peel Street (around the area from where the runaway car was illegally parked).
“We believe that these road markings could further raise the alertness of the motorists in slowing down the vehicles when entering the zone, thereby strengthening the effectiveness of the ‘pedestrian priority zone’,” said Transport Department’s Natalie Chiu in a letter to Dauriac.
Transport Department also told Dauriac this week it is working on a scheme to widen Peel Street pavements at the junction where Ma died and to put in a pedestrian crossing. The pavement currently is so narrow as to be useless, with fire hydrants taking up what space is reserved for pedestrians.
“Pedestrianisation only benefits 7-11s”
Senior officials within the government have said that there is not majority support for full-time pedestrianisation, and some in Dauriac’s group echo this view.
Richard Feldman, restaurateur, Chairman of The SoHo Association, and owner of popular hot-spots Al’s Diner and Peak Cafe, is against full pedestrianisation of the “Soho Loop”. Speaking personally, he says he has direct experience of the “challenges and hardships” pedestrianisation brings to bars and restaurants, claiming Lan Kwai Fong’s pedestrianisation scheme cost him a restaurant.
“For sure, the 7-11s win and the bars and restaurants lose sales with pedestrianisation,” he said, talking about the Hong Kong phenomenon of “7-11 bar” where revellers stock up at convenience stores and drink on the streets.
“I had to close Al’s Diner in LKF because everyone just brought their drinks at 7-11, used our toilets and listened to our music. It’s the reason I moved Al’s Diner to Soho,” he told Transit Jam.
“It’s outrageous to me 7-11 only needs a Business Registration Certificate to sell mixed cocktails and shooters, they have a full bar and they are not required to have a liquor licence,” he said.
Feldman also says pedestrianisation can kill off business when it rains and that “women in high heels don’t like pedestrianisation on hills”.
“Cars do bring in customers,” he says.
But Feldman is not dead-against the idea in general, acknowledging that business is only one aspect of a liveable community and that pedestrianisation works well in areas of his home-town of Montreal.
Rather than full-time pedestrianisation, he proposes a “daytime” scheme for, initially, Sundays. “This will ensure that business goes to [restaurants and bars] and not 7-11s,” he said.
He’s also called for Shelley Street (already pedestrianised) to be terraced, as it’s dangerously steep and slippery. “We see people falling down every single day,” he said.
Bobsy Gaia, who closed Mana! SoHo this year, is more positive on the concept of full-time pedestriansiation. “All F&B and retail would benefit 10-fold from pedestrianisation,” he said.
“It would attract foot traffic from all over Hong Kong and become a tourist attraction. We have to understand Hong Kong is a city without a centre & desperate for one. Soho is not Lan Kwai Fong and must not be compared,” he said.
“The locale of Soho and its easy accessibility, together with its sandwich placement between two iconic landmarks of PMQ and Tai Kwun, are the perfect ingredients to create a vibrant city centre. I have been unwavering clear on this since our very first campaign back in 2005/2006 era,” he says.
A few bunches of flowers mark the spot where Elodie Ma was killed last year, placed by friends to mark the anniversary of her death.
But visibly, not much else has changed. A walk along Staunton Street this week showed no obvious improvement in driver culture, with this reporter beeped several times by taxis and vans for walking in the road past pavement obstacles, while cars and trucks still park illegally on Peel Street. The paths and pavements around Soho remain crowded and obstructed by street furniture, fire hydrants, signs, garbage, construction hoardings and restaurant signs. Speeding motor vehicles plague the area.
“Sorry to tell you that is absolutely not efficient at all,” says Dauriac of the latest developments. “In living in Soho every day I can tell there is zero improvement, because the signage on the road is invisible when we drive.”
Dauriac’s small campaign group will hold a meeting soon to coalesce views and present a united front to police and Transport Department.
But Feldman says the small improvements from Transport Department, dismissed by some of the group, should be considered a “win” to build on and mark a shift in government policy language towards prioritising pedestrians.
“I have always felt that improving safety is key. I personally do like the words ‘pedestrian priority zone’, I know this is a half-way approach but the more we use this terminology the more it will help, because in my view this means the government has already recognised that pedestrians are the priority.”
“This is a small win but still a win and a great platform to work from,” he says.