The record for the world’s longest outdoor escalator system belongs to Hong Kong.
The Central Mid Levels escalator was built in the 1990’s in response to traffic congestion on the roads in Hong Kong, particularly in the business district of Central.
It was thought that an escalator system would ease congestion by encouraging more people to walk to and from Central and the Mid Levels.
The system is a kilometre long and it’s made up of covered walkways, escalators and travelators broken up into different sections.
You take one escalator or travelator and when you get to the end, you either walk from one section to the next or you just hop off.
Because the streets are so narrow, it wasn’t possible to build two escalators side-by-side.
Instead there is one escalator which goes one-way. It runs downhill from 6am to 10am and uphill from 10am until midnight.
In 2016 there were 78,000 people using the escalator daily.
In December 2018 I traveled to Hong Kong to ride the escalator myself.
I’d heard about it earlier in the year, and as the host of an escalator podcast, I believed it was my duty to experience the escalator first hand.
To find out more about the escalator and how it’s changed the city, I spoke to a local named Katty Law.
Katty Law is one of the convenors of the Central and Western Concern Group: a community of people advocating for heritage and cultural preservation in the central and western districts of Hong Kong.
Katty has lived in the Mid Levels for almost her entire life and has first-hand experience of the Mid Levels before and after the escalator.
Credits & Thanks
Katty Law – Co-Convenor, Central & Western Concern Group
Some of the music in this episode was provided by Tim & Dave of Umbra
Additional music: ‘Heliotrope’ – Blue Dot Sessions via Free Music Archive
The logo was provided by Greta Larkins
Stories behind Hong Kong districts: SoHo before the escalator – South China Morning Post
Borrowed Spaces: Life Between the Cracks of Modern Hong Kong – Christopher DeWolf
Life Cycle of the World’s Longest Escalator Link – Electrical and Mechanical Services Department
Central Mid-Levels Escalator and Walkway System – Paul Y. Engineering
Two significant parts of escalator history happened in 1993. In September, I was born. And in the following month, the world’s longest outdoor escalator system was opened in Hong Kong.
You’re listening to People Movers: a podcast highlighting the impact of escalators on everyday life. This episode is about Hong Kong’s Central Mid-Level escalators.
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The story starts in the 1970’s. During the 70s and 80s, there started to be a lot more traffic on the roads in Hong Kong, especially in the business district of Central, on Hong Kong Island. The Hong Kong government suggested building an escalator system to try and encourage more people to walk to and from Central, and take some of the pressure off the roads. Escalators would make commuting by foot easier because of how steep the area was. The escalator system was built between the late 1980s and early 1990s, and it opened to the public in October of 1993.
The escalator starts in the business area of Central and ends in a residential district, the Mid-Levels. Hence the name: the Central Mid-Level Escalators. The system is a kilometre long and it’s made up of covered walkways, escalators and travelators broken up into different sections. You take one escalator or travelator, usually the length of what you’d find in a shopping centre or an airport, and at the end you either walk from one section to the next or you just hop off.
Because the streets are so narrow, it wasn’t possible to build two escalators side-by-side. Instead there is one escalator which goes one-way. It runs downhill from 6am to 10am and uphill from 10am until midnight, in line with when most commuters are going to, and coming home from work.
The escalators travel at .65 metres per second which means they can transport almost 12,000 people per hour. For contrast, this is a little faster than shopping centre escalators and a little slower than train station escalators.
In 2016 there were 78,000 people using the escalator daily.
I learned about the escalator for the first time in early 2018 and I decided that as the host of an escalator podcast, it was simply my duty to go and check it out. I’d never been to Hong Kong before, but I wanted to go somewhere during the summer holidays and an escalator was as good an excuse as any to go on a holiday. I’d go to Hong Kong, I’d ride the escalator and hopefully I’d find enough other stuff to do there, to keep me occupied for a week.
Before I went, I started reading more about the escalators and learned about how they’ve changed the city.
I came across a 2016 article in the South China Morning Post by a journalist named Christopher De Wolf. It was about the district of SoHo, before and after the escalators. SoHo is the district in between Central and the Mid Levels and the escalator runs right through it.
De Wolf says SoHo was fairly unremarkable until the escalator was built. It wasn’t actually given the name of SoHo until the late 1990s when a restaurant owner in the area started calling it that. The escalator made the area more accessible on foot and because it was easier to access, bars and restaurants began opening there and bars and restaurants made the area more desirable to visit and to live. But because the area was increasing in popularity, the cost of rent along the escalator path also increased.
I reached out to Christopher to ask if I could interview him, but he wasn’t going to be in Hong Kong at the same time as me.
Instead he put me in touch with Katty Law. Katty is one of the convenors of the Central and Western Concern Group which advocates for heritage and cultural preservation in the central and western districts of Hong Kong. Katty has lived in Hong Kong for almost her entire life.
She’s lived in the same apartment building in the Mid Levels for over 45 years and she watched the escalator being built during her early 20’s.
I started by asking her how she’s seen her neighborhood change in the time she’s lived there.
Katty: I think before it’s mainly you know local families, old people for example but after the escalator was being built, The people that live there change. I think many of the original families or the old people moved out and then now it’s a lot of expatriates and also maybe some serviced apartments and also the rent has of course increased
L: So before the escalator was it more like residential?
Katty: Yes more residential. Mainly the low rise, like the tenement buildings, walk ups and now the ground floors of those buildings are mostly restaurants and bars and maybe galleries sometimes and very busy especially in the evening. Yeah. Very different.
I arrived in Hong Kong at half past five in the afternoon. By the time the airport bus arrived at Hong Kong Station, it was dark so I found the place where I was staying and I went to bed.
The next morning, I woke up early. Maybe it was jet-lag, or maybe it was the anticipation of riding the world’s longest outdoor escalator system for the first time. After eating breakfast, I set out to find the start of the escalator which, conveniently, was about 400 metres away from where I was staying.
By the time I arrived at the escalator, it was going uphill. And although the morning peak-hour rush had passed, it was still fairly busy. Looking back at the photos I took at the time, it looks like there was a whole range of different people taking the escalator. Some tourists like me, easy to spot by their backpacks and their comfortable shoes, but also locals probably going to work or university or just out and about getting from point A to point B. It was just like a street in any major city, except that it was moving. And I have to say, it was really cool!
After my first day, I rode the escalator a bunch of times throughout the rest of the week. Sometimes I did it just for fun, and other times I used it because I legitimately had somewhere to go and the escalator was the easiest way of getting there. It was a fun way to see the city and it took me to areas that I probably wouldn’t have seen without it.
I asked Katty if she thought Hong Kong was better or worse for having the escalator, but she said it was more complicated than that.
Katty: I think we have to look at this from different perspectives. The fact that the escalator can bring the convenience to the people to allow people to easily move up this slope I think this is definitely something positive.
Katty: It’s so convenient to go to the central business district. I mean you just walk down along the escalator and the escalator will bring you back up to mid levels. And also you know to allow people not to take for example buses or private cars and manage to move up this slope because as you say the slope is really steep in that area.
Katty: But on the other hand the kind of excessive development and gentrification that was brought about by the escalator also is somehow a negative point. It gentrified, it gentrified a lot in fact. But this is almost like the same for all over the city especially this particular central and mid levels area.
Katty: And the escalator also made a permanent mark on the landscape as well. You know all the you know the previously very quiet and peaceful street had been transformed for ever because now is a mechanical thing that is moving you know all along those streets which are covered by the escalator. So it’s kind of a change of pace for the city as well.
Katty: Previously people have to walk but they can slow down a little bit when when they are tired and or want when they want to just rest on the street but now the escalators Keep moving people up the slope. So it is a kind of a change of pace in that particular part of central and mid levels.
As one of the convenors of the Central and Western Concern Group, and someone who has lived in the area for almost her whole life, Katty cares more than most people about how her community is maintained.
With so many changes already, I wondered what Katty wanted her community to look like in the future.
Katty: I think what I want to see is a better preservation of our cultural heritage. And we have been working on this as the concern group and I mean if you ask me like 20 years ago the government was not was not very responsive to that. But over the last 10 years I think there’s some improvement. But I would like to see more efforts to put on conservation. And I also want to see you know this area to be not as commercialized as now. I mean as I talk about gentrification just now it means for example the rents or the price of the restaurants could be quite high and may not be affordable to you know common people.
Katty: So I mean if the price come down a bit I think it would be more welcome. You know and to also keep some of the local eateries for example the food stalls instead of just becoming the high end expensive restaurants. I would appreciate you know more of the the local food stalls and and the small shops be able to survive here rather than you know scared by the high rent. So definitely rent control should be good.
I loved Hong Kong.
The week I spent there was honestly one of the best holidays I’ve ever had. On my second night I even thought to myself “I wonder if I could live here one day” and when I came home I spent a lot of time Googling Hong Kong radio jobs.
I told Katty how much I loved Hong Kong and I asked her to share with me what she loves about her city.
And even though Katty’s neighborhood has changed, she does still love it.
Katty: I think Hong Kong is very interesting. First of all because it’s my home and it gives me so much memories of growing up in here. It’s very unique. It’s always like a mixture of both East and West. It’s not totally Chinese and not totally Western, is like a hybrid.
Katty: And also that kind of diversity and the open mindedness that Hong Kong you know present itself you know like in my neighborhood that I live in. We have of course the local people but there are also people coming from all around the world and they come to Hong Kong because they would liked to to find life in here and to live here. And some people actually stay for so many years, stay forever and they’re not leaving. And I think the that’s the attractiveness of Hong Kong is that it’s still very open to them to you know the world.
Katty: Because I talked about this in the morning with some of my neighbors that the fact that we still find our neighborhood very attractive because while you know Soho is very vibrant, some of the quieter places can still be preserved. Yeah. So that that should be you know a bit of a balance in this neighborhood. Mm hmm yeah.
L: Yeah some of the old and some of the new.
Katty: Yeah yeah definitely.
Katty: And even now I’m not tired of it I really want to live here all my life.
You can follow People Movers on Instagram: we’re at people movers podcast. Full transcripts and more information can be found at people movers podcast dot com. You can find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your podcast app of choice.
Some of the music in this episode was provided by Tim and Dave of Umbra. You can find them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/umbraduo.
I’ll put links to all the articles I read for this episode on my website. Again, it’s people movers podcast dot com.
Until next time, start paying more attention to the escalators around you. You might be surprised by what you discover.
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