It’s late on a Friday morning in Hong Kong and the call to prayer rings and drifts out from the century-old gates of the Jamia Mosque, merging with the mechanical click-click of another local landmark: the Central to Mid-Levels Escalator Link. It is the world’s longest outdoor escalator system, which connects Hong Kong’s central business district with the upscale residential streets of the Mid-Levels.

While many think of escalators as department store mainstays, in Hong Kong, they’re a go-to mode of public transport: The sprawling Mid-Levels Escalator Link shuttles over 80,000 commuters per day.

On this Friday morning, one South Asian congregant, dressed in a button-down shirt and slacks, says he takes the escalator to the mosque every week for Friday prayers. “It’s very convenient,” he says, before washing his feet for prayer.

Twelve hours later, it’s a different scene entirely. A roar of music and conversation escapes from the bars of Soho, a once-quiet neighbourhood that morphed into a nightlife zone after the link opened in 1993. People glide up the escalator as if on a carnival ride: pre-clubbing twentysomethings clutching cans of beer, well-coiffed cocktail types, weary office workers looking to forget their long hours of overtime.

The sprawling Mid-Levels Escalator Link shuttles over 80,000 commuters per day.

Hilly cities have always found novel ways to transport their citizens up inhospitable terrain. San Francisco has its cable cars, Lyon its funiculars (cable railways that scale cliffs). In recent years, South American cities like Medellín, Rio de Janeiro and La Paz have built aerial lifts to reach poor neighbourhoods high in the hills.

Hong Kong, however, was the first city to embrace the escalator as a form of public transportation — though its glory days as a transit solution may well be over.

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Gallery images courtesy Christopher DeWolf

When Hong Kong became a British Crown Colony in 1842, then-governor Sir Henry Pottinger envisioned a grand city built along the shores of Victoria Harbour and the flatlands of Happy Valley, a few miles to the east of where the British first landed, with Venetian-style canals to transport goods and people. Those dreams were dashed by the British military, which called dibs on a prime piece of centrally-located land, forcing the city to climb up the steep hills of the western side of the island. East-west roads ran along the contours of the slopes, with granite staircases linking them together.

For most of its history, Hong Kong’s wealthy built ornate mansions and terrace houses in the Mid-Levels, a belt of land halfway up Victoria Peak, the 1,817-foot mountain that dominates Hong Kong Island. That began to change in the 1970s, when a building boom conspired with lax planning regulations to cover the slopes in a thicket of high-rises. By the mid-1980s, the whole area was bursting at the seams, with a population of 45,000 that was expected to double in 20 years. Every morning, sewage from overburdened pipes overflowed into stormwater drains. The district’s two-lane roads were constantly jammed with cars, taxis and buses.

The solution? Government planners’ proposal for six elevated walkways that would carry pedestrians uphill on a mix of escalators and travelators (moving sidewalks).

“We did the planning in 1984,” says architect Remo Riva, director of P&T Group, which consulted the government. The idea was that commuters who drove or took taxis to work would use the walkways instead, easing congestions. In the end, one of the links was approved as a pilot project. The system would go on to comprise 20 escalators and three one-way travelators, and it would stretch for 800 metres along Cochrane and Shelley Streets, rising 150 metres along the way. Escalators would run downhill for the morning rush hour and uphill after 10:30am.

Shopowners along the route hated the plan. As construction dragged on behind schedule, they held protests and demanded compensation for lost business. A headline in the South China Morning Post blasted the escalator as the “stairway to hell.” Another article referred to it as “high-tech caterpillar.” Residents were similarly peeved. Katty Law, who was born and raised in the Mid-Levels, was living across from the Jamia Mosque when the escalator opened. “I remember the noise. Bzzzz. I never got used to it,” she says.

Commuters who previously took public transport switched to the escalator.

When it opened on October 15, 1993, the escalator cost a total of HK$270 million (around £23 million) – more than six times its initial budget of HK$44 million. Still, crowds of eager passengers caused a near-stampede on its first day of operation. More than 20,000 commuters began using it every day. Despite its popularity, one thing quickly became clear: the escalator had absolutely no effect on traffic congestion. “It is perhaps unrealistic to expect the escalator to reduce substantially the volume of the traffic flow," acknowledged Hong Kong’s then-Secretary for Transport, Haider Barma, during a 1993 question period in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council.

It was convenient, though. Even Orthodox Jews heading to the century-old synagogue on Robinson Road were given the all-clear to use it on Shabbat, according to a rabbinical ruling issued in 1993. (Hong Kong’s Jewish community numbers less than 10,000, but many of its members live and work near the escalator.) “Jews who observe traditional practices don't ride cars on Shabbat and so the ability to use the escalator can make a big difference,” says rabbi Asher Oser. “Since the escalator is in constant motion, and is not directed by the person riding it, there is no problem riding the escalator on Shabbat.”

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While the escalator failed to reduce congestion, it did succeed at one thing: boosting property values. The neighbourhoods along its path have become some of the most expensive in Hong Kong. Though people who drove or took taxis to work didn’t change their habits, commuters who previously took public transport switched to the escalator. It also became an attraction of sorts, drawing people to the previously working-class neighbourhoods just below the Mid-Levels, which quickly became a hotspot for nightlife and entertainment.

The neighbourhoods along its path have become some of the most expensive in Hong Kong.

That may be why, more than a decade after the Central-Mid Levels link was branded a failure, district councillors in another neighbourhood, Sai Ying Pun, pushed for an escalator on exceptionally steep Centre Street. When that link finally opened in 2013, retail rents in the area doubled. Although the escalator spans just 200 metres, it carries 27,000 people per day up one of the steepest streets in the city.

But Centre Street may prove to be the escalator’s last stand. When another link was proposed along Pound Lane, a narrow staircase street in Sheung Wan, property developers began buying up flats along the route. But interest has fizzled in the face of neighbourhood opposition, which worried that an escalator would bring noise, crowds and high-rise development along the area’s narrow, pedestrian-only streets.

Ridership on the Central-Mid Levels escalator has grown to 85,000 per day, though commuters will need to find an alternative next year when the link’s mechanical components are dismantled and rebuilt piece by piece — after a quarter-century of daily operation, they’ve reached the end of their lifespan. “It’s a convenient tool,” says Katty Law, who uses the link several times per week. But she still can’t shake her reservations about it. “You lose touch with the ground and your surroundings,” she says. That was exactly the feeling captured by filmmaker Wong Kar-wai in his 1994 hit Chungking Express, which used the escalator as a symbol of urban alienation.

But writer Daisann McLane, who has lived alongside the escalator for more than a decade, sees it as just the opposite. “In Chungking Express, the Mid-Levels Escalator is used to convey a postmodern urban sadness. In real life, it plays a much more cheerful role,” she wrote in a 2004 article for the New York Times Magazine. “Riding the escalator every day, I feel as if I have a personal relationship with the occupants of several apartments along the route, the ones whose second- or third-story windows are so close to the escalator you can practically reach out and touch their flowerpots.”

Those apartments may no longer exist, converted into upstairs retail units as rents climb higher and higher. But the escalator’s uniqueness endures as it click-click-clicks its way uphill, past shops, bars, mosques and synagogues.

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