Car-free roads, short queues, and clean air: Positive side effects of Hong Kong protests

A dog stands on an empty road outside the Central Government Office in Hong Kong on Oct 5, 2014. Hong Kong has been plunged into the worst political crisis since its 1997 handover as pro-democracy activists take over the streets following China's ref
A dog stands on an empty road outside the Central Government Office in Hong Kong on Oct 5, 2014. Hong Kong has been plunged into the worst political crisis since its 1997 handover as pro-democracy activists take over the streets following China's refusal to grant citizens full universal suffrage. -- PHOTO: AFP

EMPTY tables at restaurants usually booked up for weeks. Short lines at Disneyland. Clear air and blue skies in the city centre.

Whatever your politics, it is difficult to deny that the two-week-long pro-democracy protest has had some positive side effects.

Much has been made of the gridlocked traffic across the city and loss of income for local business owners thanks to the protesters' blockading of main thoroughfares in Admiralty, Causeway Bay and Mongkok.

But the dog-walkers, cyclists and picnickers who have enjoyed the free roads in the past two weeks, buoyed by sunny late-summer weather, acknowledge a reluctance to see the roaring, carbon-emitting vehicles return.

Young professionals have enjoyed the break from wading through bodies on the narrow overhead bridges that connect Admiralty's skyscrapers, strolling along the eight-lane road instead.

"It's given us a taste of what a more pedestrianised Hong Kong would be like, which would be very nice," said communications consultant Harold Li, 26.

There is actually a proposal, put forth earlier this year by the city's Institute of Planners, to turn the Des Voeux Road Central stretch into a pedestrianised path like Nanjing Road in Shanghai or Wangfujing in Beijing.

But the government is worried about what this would mean for traffic congestion.

The protests have also been a godsend for determined foodies, who've found empty tables instead of long lines at popular eateries located within or near the protest sites.

There are fewer tourists in town and locals are staying away due to traffic and safety concerns.

Where once stone-faced waiters stared in impatience as you swallowed your "stocking milk tea" at Lan Fong Yuen restaurant, located in Central near the Admiralty protest site, over the weekend, diners sipped their tea unhurriedly and chatted leisurely.

At nearby egg tart haven Tai Cheong bakery, however, the auntie manning the counter answered a mite impatiently when this reporter asked if business had dropped due to the protests.

There was no one behind me waiting to be served, but her impatient efficiency, honed in pre-protest days, was unshakeable.

A group of Singaporean tourists whom I accosted at Lan Fong Yuen were delighted that their trip had coincided with the protests.

"We were at Disneyland on Friday, and the lines were so short," explained executive Michelle Lim, 29, who also works in the tourism industry back in Singapore. "The lack of mainland tourists has really made a big difference."

Of course, those who depend on income from those tourists and those long lines would dispute the positivity of these side effects.

And the student protesters whom I talked to suggested positive aspects that were endearingly subjective if self-serving, such as "greater compassion and kindness in Hong Kong".

One young man named Endy Chen, 25, told me that I should look into the response rate statistics of Hong Kong's ambulances in the past two weeks.

The student protesters manning the barricades of the roads let emergency vehicles through.

"I think that since there is no traffic here, they actually respond to calls faster! So more people are saved," he said.

One set of statistics that can't be so easily spun show a positive side effect that no one, even those squarely against the protest movement, can deny.

With vehicles banished from these thoroughfares, official readings have consistently shown the health risk from air pollutants in those areas as low or moderate rather than the usual high.

There has also been a halving of the level of nitrogen oxide, emitted by diesel engines, in the air in the past two weeks.

Whatever its achievements may end up being, the pro-democracy movement has already shown Hong Kongers a vision of a pedestrianised city with clean air, uncrowded sidewalks and fewer mainland tourists whose ubiquitous presence has caused tension between them and Hong Kongers.

No wonder the government wants them to clear out.

rchang@sph.com.sg