Mobility ‧ Masters


Paul Zimmerman

Often the first thing we learn about a city is its topography. We see the layout of streets and buildings through two-dimensional maps and pictures, or three-dimensional models. Cities are tangible and identifiable from their shapes and forms, and these images suggest what we can expect of these cities. But they tell us little about mobility.

Cities have a fourth dimension as well. This is the movement of people and goods, much of which is tactile, visible and measurable. Although it may be difficult to capture on film, we can also measure the flows of food, water, electricity, radio waves, waste, sewage and air emissions in, out and through a given city. These non-stop streams differ for each city, following an area’s unique topography, infrastructure, state of development, economic activity, wealth, climate and other characteristics.

Hong Kong has some 220km of railways and 2,101km of roads—442km on Hong Kong Island, 466km in Kowloon and 1,193km in the New Territories. There are 15 major road tunnels and 1,340 flyovers and bridges which keep people and goods on the move.

Hong Kong’s roads support over 732,000 vehicles and are among the most heavily used in the world. Over 7 million residents are concentrated in core urban areas where density peaks at 111,000 residents per square km and this number swells with a tourist population of almost 60 million visitors (2015). Hong Kong’s urban areas can be compared to a gigantic anthill where the constant movement of busy bodies is mostly carried out via public transport or on foot. Mass transit, buses, minibuses and taxis are used for 90% of daily journeys made. On average, only 1 in 5 households has a private car. The city is so compact that over  80% of the population lives 400m or less from a rail station or other transport facility. The profitability of the Mass Transit Railway (MTR) is the envy of transport operators around the world.

Some 1,222 footbridges and subways have been built by the Government. Many more have been constructed by the private sector to link stations, piers, malls and mezzanines or basement floors to neighbouring properties. Hong Kong’s urban areas, which have multiple overlapping pedestrian networks—one at grade, and another one below or above ground—continue to grow. These networks address overcrowding at street level, and allow pedestrians to cross high-capacity roads. They are especially appreciated during inclement weather when people are willing to change elevation or make a detour through a covered, climate-controlled space to avoid the rain and heat.

The fifth dimension of cities involves the interactions between these flows, and the transactions, conversations and exchanges which take place among humans, and with and among machines. Those that can be expressed in monetary terms are readily identified, measured and reported. Besides the distribution of political and economic powers, the shape of the city, the design of the urban environment, the advancement of technology and electronic communications impact these figures.

In Hong Kong, transactions go well beyond the needs of the local population. Our geographic location, a sheltered port at the mouth of the Pearl River Delta, combined with political events, has helped turn Hong Kong into a global trading and financial centre. Its port and stock exchange rank among the world’s largest.

Its change in sovereignty and the city’s return to China, means that Hong Kong is aggressively opening physical links with the Mainland. The number of people travelling between Hong Kong and the Mainland has increased since China opened its borders; this number has grown exponentially since the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997. New road and rail connections are being built. Whereas daily vehicular trips across the Hong Kong/Mainland boundary is around 40,000 today, capacity is being added for some 220,000 vehicular trips a day. This increase in mobility will change Hong Kong.

Factors such as density, proximity and available transport options enable people to have a large number of face-to-face meetings in one day. Corporates, legal advisers and financiers working in the Central Business District can easily cram eight meetings in different offices and restaurants in a single day. On the other hand, incidental encounters with strangers, which lead to conversations and social exchanges, are constrained. With the pre-occupation of facilities and services to keep everybody and everything moving, there has been little attention given to social time. This is apparent in the fact that pavements, stations and even shopping malls have few, if any, public seating. There is much that could be done to make Hong Kong’s public domain and public spaces more enjoyable and conducive for people to dwell in and to meet up, and to facilitate the exchange of ideas.

This leads to the sixth dimension of our city. The mobility of common understandings which develop and the speed with which ideas shape up and values are adopted or discarded. Some of these can be measured by monitoring media headlines or the counting the hit rates of specific terms and descriptions appearing on the internet. Opinion polls, the number of people who show up at events, and surely elections, give a clear measure of common concerns and opinions which have formed.

The transactions and communications flowing through our compact and dense city are intense. What never ceases to amaze is how quickly the Hong Kong community can make up its mind on issues large and small. Views are expressed through both new and traditional media. Mobile phones, newspapers and TV sets in every eatery and shopping destination mobilise opinions. Conversations in the train, taxi, at work, at home and through social media chatter, divide or unite views on trending topics.

The seventh dimension of the city— the mobility of a shared value system of what makes Hong Kong—is our spirit, attitude and culture. Visitors can be amazed by the ease with which people share crowded train services, pavements and massive urban density. Traders recognise Hong Kong’s efficiency over embellishment.

Many Hong Kong residents partake in global economic activities and enjoy Hong Kong’s low unemployment rates. Whereas a resident’s right to the city is protected through extensive social public housing provisions for some 45% of the lower-income households, as well as extensive public healthcare and education, not everyone enjoys these rewards. The global flows transacting through the city push up property prices and benefit some more than all others. Social mobility in Hong Kong—besides the rags to riches, flowers to empires, folklore—is found increasingly wanting for different sectors of the community who have limited access to and share of the flows of transactions.

The discussion over greater equality for the underprivileged in Hong Kong continues. Values have developed on what is right and wrong, on how things are done in Hong Kong, Hong Kong-style. These values are now being tested with the challenging realisation of the return of Hong Kong to China. New generations will speak out and push for changes, and these values—the Hong Kong spirit—will continue to evolve.

Paul Zimmerman
Designing Hong Kong