Some notes on Hong Kong’s newish waterfront “promenades” and on its other pedestrian facilities

Hong Kong is perhaps best known in the world of urban studies for its extraordinarily high transit share. Public transit accounts for a larger percentage of journeys in Hong Kong than in any other city in the world.1 Something like 77.6% of the employed population used transit to get to work in 2016.2 Approximately 4.7 million people board MTR (Mass Transit Railway) trains every day, and an additional five million or so use buses, light-rail lines, trams, and ferries.

Hong Kong’s pedestrian facilities are as distinctive and impressive as its transit system.3 The central parts of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, with their extraordinarily dense housing stock, intense street-level commerce, and excellent public transit, are among the most pedestrian-oriented places on earth, and the newer, somewhat less dense housing developments away from the center, despite their tower-in-a-park designs, are fairly pedestrian-friendly as well. The chief problem that pedestrians face in central Hong Kong is that the sidewalks can be so crowded that it isn’t easy to walk fast. There is also the issue that pedestrians are expected to be fairly obedient when it comes to crossing streets. Many sidewalks are fenced to prevent jaywalking, and, since Asian traffic engineers are in charge, the wait for traffic lights to change can be maddeningly long.

Fairly ordinary street along the northern edge of Hong Kong Island. Note the fenced sidewalk.

The most extraordinary pedestrian facilities in Hong Kong, however, are actually not in the densest sections of the city at all but in the substantial hilly regions that cover a large part of the urban area. A little history is necessary to understand this. The British colonial government owned essentially all the land from the moment of its inception in 1841, and the government in place in the years since the 1997 “Handover” has not altered the system in any substantial way.4 Since a large portion of government revenue consists of income from its ownership of the land, there is no incentive to change. Non-governmental land “ownership” in Hong Kong involves long-term leases, and these leases bring in an enormous amount. Still, the leases have not been granted casually. Land use has been as tightly controlled as anywhere in the world. Hyper-capitalist Hong Kong has had an extraordinarily socialist system of land-use governance in the 175 years of its existence. A basic element of this governance is that—except in the hilly area behind the Central district—high-density building has generally been allowed only on flat (or at least fairly flat) land, of which there is relatively little, especially on Hong Kong Island. The government has added enormously to the stock of flat land through its almost continual landfills, but the majority of land in Hong Kong is still hilly and for the most part is not built on. Much of this land is given over to parks; and most of the rest is used for reservoirs, cemeteries, transmission towers, and other land uses that do not require frequent, intense human presence.

The emptier parts of Hong Kong are as a result laced with walking trails and lightly used roads. It is very likely that no large city in the world has as much recreational land close to densely built-up urban land as Hong Kong. The map below gives some sense of how this works. The light grey lines indicate roads. The green lines show links that are classified in the OpenStreetMap database as pedestrian facilities.5 In the heavily built-up parts of the city (for example, along the northern shore of Hong Kong Island) these include paths in urban parks, pedestrianized streets (of which there are quite a few), and overhead walkways (which are especially numerous in the Central district). In the less built-up areas (for example, in the central part of Hong Kong Island), the green lines mostly indicate trails of various sorts. These range from older paved roads that have been closed to traffic to rough dirt paths in the woods. As always, there can be a certain ambiguity about whether a rough trail is “established” enough to map; some of the suspiciously isolated bits of trail probably reflect cartographers’ uncertainty. A minor complication is that the trails are supplemented by lightly used roads that are perfectly comfortable for walking or running. The fact that post-“Handover” government agencies have paved some of the trails has made the distinction between “road” and “trail” still harder to discern.

Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, and surrounding area. GIS data from the BBBike.org and MetroExtracts versions of OpenStreetMap, modified a great deal.

The “country trails,” footpaths, and pedestrian-friendly roads of the lightly populated parts of Hong Kong are wonderful, but there are a couple of problems with them. The first is that they are (by Hong Kong standards anyway) in the country, often what seems like a long way from both residential districts and MTR stations. Of course, this is one of their virtues too, but their remoteness makes them somewhat inaccessible to many potential users. The second problem is that many—maybe most—of these facilities are anything but flat. Some, in fact, are extraordinarily steep. For runners and hikers who want serious exercise—and for those who appreciate the views you get on the trails (such as that shown in the photo along the top of this page)—the trails’ steepness is an advantage, but, clearly, not everyone is going to want to manage ten and fifteen percent grades.

Hong Kong’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department in conjunction with other government agencies has consequently been putting most of its energy in the 21st century into creating pedestrian facilities that complement the old country trails and avoid some of their weaknesses. It has been systematically creating walkways called “promenades” along some of Hong Kong’s waterfronts. The Chinese term for “promenade”—海濱花園 [Mandarin pronunciation: hăibīn huāyuán], which means (approximately) “waterfront garden”—is perhaps more descriptive than the (slightly odd) English term, or at least the first part of it is: the promenades all follow coastlines. Thus, they are mostly quite flat. Many adjoin residential areas, and many are close to MTR stations. Thus, they are easily accessible to more people than the “country trails.” They are, in short, much like many of the other waterfront recreational trails that have been built in cities throughout the world over the last fifty years.

Quarry Bay Promenade, Hong Kong Island.

The promenades (again like many of the world’s other new pedestrian facilities) reflect the geography of easy opportunity. They have been built where it was easy and cheap to build, which along Hong Kong’s waterfront has meant either in conjunction with landfill projects or in areas where old port or industrial facilities have closed. Thus, the promenades can be somewhat discontinuous. For example, along the north shore of Hong Kong Island, there are promenades in Sun Yat-sen Park; in the new park near the Star Ferry Terminal; around the Convention Center; north of Victoria Park; along Quarry Bay; and along Aldrich Bay (see map).

Central Hong Kong, promenades and other pdestrian facilities, MTR lines

Central Hong Kong, showing promenades. “Promenades” include features identified as such by Hong Kong’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department and a very small number of additional coastal walkways, for example the one in Sun Yat-sen Recreational Park.

The lack of continuity of course doesn’t matter as much as it would for, say, a rail line; there are good pedestrian links between these separate promenades. But someone attempting to run or walk along the whole north shore of Hong Kong Island would at least be forced to slow down considerably between promenades. The authorities are of course aware of the problem and have plans to fill the holes eventually, but there isn’t much to be done when the intervening spaces are in use by industries or port facilities.6 No one has ever accused the Hong Kong government of failing to respect the needs of its successful commercial enterprises.

Many of the promenades are carefully designed. The Kwun Tong Promenade, for example, is sited in an area once used in part to process recycled paper. Sculptures at the end of the promenade were created to suggest paper stacks. Actually, just about all the newer promenades include not only artwork but also pavements, benches, and fences that suggest that a designer has been at work. The promenades also pretty much all provide stunning views as well. A brief look around from just about any spot would suggest that you couldn’t be anywhere else in the world but Hong Kong.

The West Kowloon Waterfront Promenade in the still under-construction West Kowloon Cultural District.

Walking and running are not the only activities that occur on the promenades. There is plenty of space for sitting, and it gets used. There is also room for traditional Chinese group activities like stretching and dancing. And you see numerous fishermen along those coastal fences.

The Quarry Bay Promenade is used for many different activities.

The promenades can be crowded, but they are surprisingly orderly. Like much else in Hong Kong, they are subject to rather elaborate rules. Smoking, dogs, and bicycles are all generally forbidden, and the rules are usually obeyed. There is a separate dog park at one end of the Quarry Bay Promenade, and there are apparently a few other dog parks in Hong Kong, but it is probably fair to say that dogs in general are not pampered quite as obsessively in Hong Kong as in, say, the United States.

What’s forbidden on Quarry Bay Promenade (one of the few promenades including a section where dogs are allowed).

The fact that bicycles aren’t accommodated is a sore point for serious cyclists. Bicycles aren’t allowed on promenades and most other pedestrian paths, and there has generally been no attempt at all to create bicycle paths in the denser parts of Hong Kong.7 Perhaps this makes sense; it’s not quite clear where bicycle paths could go. There are “cycling tracks” here and there around Hong Kong, mostly running along streets away from the center, and you certainly see serious cyclists on outer-city roads. Furthermore, the Ma On Shan Promenade (and perhaps other outer-city promenades as well) has a parallel bicycle path. But, generally, pedestrian facilities in Hong Kong are not at all hospitable to cyclists.

Hong Kong’s waterfront promenades, its older and more remote country trails, its central-city overhead walkways, and its ordinary sidewalks make Hong Kong one of the world’s best places for pedestrian life.

  1. The best and most complete comparative international data on transit use can probably still be found in: Peter Newman and Jeffrey Kenworthy, The end of automobile dependence : how cities are moving beyond car-based planning. Washington : Island Press, 2015. The latest figures Newman and Kenworthy report date from 2005-2006 (see, for example, the table on page 59, which shows that Hong Kong has nearly twice the transit share of any other city). I don’t know whether anyone has compiled an update. It’s possible that some of the cities in “Mainland” China, where rail-transit construction has taken place on a truly massive scale since 2005, are competitors for Hong Kong’s title, but no “Mainland” Chinese city appears to have been as successful as Hong Kong in discouraging automobile ownership.
  2. Total working population: 2,848,421. Total who used public transit: 2,209,131 (not including company bus or taxi). Foot: 283,301 (9.9%). Private car: 184,253 (6.5%). Source: Hong Kong 2016 population by-census : main results. Student commuting patterns, even more transit-oriented, are enumerated separately.
  3. Most of the information and all of the opinions presented in this post were acquired in the course of more than a dozen trips to Hong Kong since the 1990s, most recently in late November 2017.
  4. The definitive book on land law in Hong Kong is: Roger Nissim. Land administration and practice in Hong Kong. Second edition. Hong Kong : Hong Kong University Press, 2008.
  5. I haven’t just accepted the OpenStreetMap data. I’ve taken out, for example, the railyards that are carefully included in the original data set. Note that, as always, it’s tricky to show two features in the same place in GIS. On this and on the other map, red lines showing MTR routes cover orange lines showing tram routes, and both cover green lines showing pedestrian facilities.
  6. There’s a plan, for example, to build a continuous walkway between North Point and Chai Wan; see this article in the South China Morning Post. The well-indexed SCMP has had pretty good coverage of planning developments in Hong Kong.
  7. When you cross the border and go to Shenzhen, one of the first things you notice is how many bicycles there are on the sidewalks. But shiny new Shenzhen has much wider sidewalks than Hong Kong. Like many other Chinese cities, it also has quite a few central-city bicycle lanes.
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