Sustainable Cities™

Hong Kong: Re-discovering escalators as public transport

Cars and even bicycles seem to be slowly becoming a less desirable element of dense city life as people realise the traffic problems they can create, the danger they can present to their users, and the space they can take away from parks. Accordingly, many cities have recently been looking into improving pedestrian methods of getting around. Hong Kong has taken an incredibly successful step forward in this way and has introduced an 800-meter-long system of moving sidewalks and escalators into the center of its city.

Hong Kong "mellem niveau" - rulletrappe i myldretiden. 5 maj, 2008, foto af goosmurf, Flickr Creative Commons. Foto # 2467438696

In the early 1900's, many people believed that the cities of the future would be a maze of moving sidewalks, escalators, elevator shafts, and pedestrian bridges spanning over streets. As evidenced by creations such as the moving sidewalk in the 1900 Paris world's fair, many people thought that such pedestrian-aiding transportation forms would become common ways to get around cities. Today, we ask: what has happened to this vision and why are many of our cities not really like this after an entire century? Well, a number of vehicles were invented since then including the automobile and the bicycle, which completely changed this vision of a pedestrian paradise into a sprawling road network. But, now, as people are realizing some of the drawbacks of vehicles, cities like Hong Kong, China, have been rediscovering this century-old vision.

Completed in 1993, the Mid Levels escalator stretches a horizontal distance of 800 meters through the centre of the city and climbs a vertical height of 135 meters. This incredible system of moving sidewalks and escalators has become a widely-used method of transportation, carrying more than 55,000 passengers each day. Hovering at a level above the street, the system possesses 20 connections to the ground below and the surrounding buildings. Hong Kong citizens use the system for various reasons, including commuting work, visiting shopping districts or malls, and reaching the bars or clubs downtown.

Hong Kong Escalator from outside, 30 september 2006, By VirtualErn, Flickr Creative Commons

When the system was first finished, its beneficial effects were not initially obvious to the local government. Costing the city 30 million USD to construct and requiring no money from its users, the project seemed at first to be a waste of taxes. Even when the system became hugely popular, more than doubling its initial estimate of 27,000 daily users, members of the city's highway department still heavily criticized it for failing to solve car traffic problems. Also, it seems many officials expected the escalator to have the effects of a metro, except, unlike a metro, this system could be built going steeply uphill. Of course, with a riding time of as much as 20 minutes from one end of the system to the other, there were clearly some major differences.

Nevertheless, some huge benefits were suddenly realised as private developers and entrepreneurs began developing the "second level" that the escalator system had created. New restaurants, shops, bars and cafes flooded into the area and sparked a new wave of vertical development. With more trendy stores and the pedestrian capacity of the transport network increased, the standard of living in the area rose substantially. This, in turn, caused a jump in real estate value and drew the eyes of developers seeking to increase the vertical density and living capacity around the escalator. Such vertical development has allowed the city to hold off on "horizontal development" that would involve the destruction of its parkland and harbour. Accordingly, this domino effect of positive events has gotten the city to consider plans for another mid-levels escalator in the near future.

Vertical Density in Hong Kong

Since Hong Kong lies mostly on narrow strips of flat land between coastline and steep mountainsides, vertical density has been very important to its development. Often resorting to filling in its harbor with artificial land, the city's growth has not been the healthiest for its harbour's ecosystem or undercurrent speed. Furthermore, the city has tried to preserve much of the natural forest along the steep mountain sides as parkland for the city's residents. Many citizens of Hong Kong refer to it as the city's "backyard" and argue that it cannot be easily developed into land for stable buildings anyway.

Accordingly, the Mid Levels escalator has helped tremendously in preserving Hong Kong's "backyard" and harbour. Not only has it reduced the need for bicycle space and maybe some car space that would require the city to expand but it has also inspired development in the vertical direction instead of the direction of the harbours and parks.

Last updated Tuesday, January 21, 2014