Escalators – who would think of them as a means of public transportation? Usually they are the ones doing the work in the background, carrying us down to the subway or up to the airport terminal. But in Hong Kong, escalators are the stars: Enter the Central Mid-Levels Escalator.
Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated cities in the world. It is also located on a very hilly landscape covered by tall buildings. It is no wonder that this sprawling city of over 7 million people has found some ingenious solutions to its public transportation problems. The famous double-decker trams come to mind.
But there is another, less famous and spectacular public transportation system in Hong Kong. It is the Central-Mid-Levels Escalator. Despite the name, it is not a single escalator, but a series of 18 escalators and three inclined moving walkways. Together, they form a line that helps pedestrians travel a total of 135 meters up or down between the Central and Mid-Levels on Hong Kong Island.
It takes about 30 minutes to cross the whole line. The system was built between existing buildings, following pre-existing routes. As a result, the escalators fit well into the cityscape, unlike a funicular, which is used in many other cities to climb steep inclines. Another advantage is that people can get on and off the system at any street intersection.
A disadvantage of the system is that it only goes one way. From 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., it goes downhill to take people to work. From 10 am, the direction is reversed. This is a manual process that takes about 20 minutes. Then it goes uphill until midnight. If you want to go in the opposite direction at the wrong time of day, you are out of luck and have to walk.
Patronage of the Central-Mid-Levels Escalator has increased from about 34,000 people in 1996 to 78,000 people daily in 2016. Many Hong Kongers love the system and the way it helps them on their daily commute to work or to carry their groceries.
However, the project has also been criticized. It went over budget by more than 150 percent, ultimately costing $31 million. In addition, there was no evidence that it reduced car traffic, which was one of the main goals for implementing this unique solution.
On the other hand, the construction of the escalator system led to a lot of new business along the escalators. Many shops and restaurants opened on the intermediate levels. The SoHo entertainment district also developed because of the new access provided by the escalators.
This shows that while the original goal of reducing traffic may not have been achieved, the Central-Mid-Levels-Escalator certainly had a positive impact on the city’s residents and their prosperity.
The Central-Mid-Levels Escalator is not high tech. The underlying technology is as common as it gets, as escalators and moving walks have been around for many decades. But it was an ingenious move on the part of the city of Hong Kong to use them in a public transportation system in their own right, rather than as a feeder to other modes of transportation.
In my opinion, the idea of escalators as a means of public transportation could be implemented in other densely populated and hilly areas, as they are relatively cheap to build and can be adapted to existing roads and paths. Well, at least in areas like Hong Kong that have a warm climate and mild winters, as few people will be willing to stand on an escalator for a long time in a cold winter wind. But with the growth of megacities in places with warm climates, we may see more of this idea in the future.