We want to ride our bicycles
In a city where the car is king, those who want to get out on two wheels face a traffic nightmare. Shirley Zhao investigates the government’s cycling policies – or, perhaps, a lack of them...
Cars rule Hong Kong. Their emissions rule the air. And anyone who wants to get on a bicycle and travel into the heart of the city risks running the gauntlet on our dangerous roads. When other cities across the world are promoting bicycle travel as a safer, cheaper and more environmentally friendly alternative to the car, Hong Kong seems light years behind.
So it’s a good time to discuss the place of the bicycle in the city. Inspirational 24-year-old Sarah Lee Wai-sze has returned home after scooping bronze – only the third medal in Hong Kong’s history and the only one for the SAR in this year’s London Olympics – in cycling. We’re clearly good on two wheels – with places like Lamma Island almost solely relying on the bike for transportation. However, Hong Kong is often difficult to navigate for cyclists and many think the government has a lack of interest in supporting it as a transport or a sport. Some believe the authorities do little to promote the skills and awareness of the motorists who share the roads with cyclists.
“Hong Kong is an amazing place for cycling with the hills and the beautiful countryside,” says Charles Nixon, who usually cycles twice a week. But the 43-year-old lawyer’s passion was once at odds with the cycling regulations here, when traffic police warned him not to ride on Southern District’s Black’s Link, a road with few vehicles and pedestrians – but which is banned to cyclists. Nixon sees this as an example of some of the crazy laws in the city which are not being addressed by the government.
Most Legislative Council candidates expect the government to recognise cycling as a transport option and incorporate its consideration in planning projects, according to a survey released at the end of last month by the Hong Kong Cycling Alliance. The survey received 88 responses out of a targeted 188 candidates – and 87 of them, representing most political parties, said cycling should be considered as a transport. “The survey shows that Hong Kong’s politicians have started to become concerned about the insufficient cycling policies,” says Leo Wong Kwun-sing, alliance member. “So far, the government still sees cycling as merely a recreational activity while, across the world, governments are promoting it as a form of sustainable transport.”
Over the years, the subject of Hong Kong’s rapidly deteriorating air quality has been widely reported. Last year, readings at three roadside monitoring stations in Central, Causeway Bay and Mong Kok commercial districts showed that pollution levels were more than 20 percent above the ‘100 mark’, according to the city’s Environmental Protection Department. This was reportedly 10 times worse than in 2005. A reading above 100 triggers a government warning for people with heart or respiratory illnesses to avoid prolonged stays in heavy-traffic areas. “Cycling is emissions-free!” says Wong. “The community will get healthier too. Cycling also enables people to travel in short distances more conveniently.”
However, last September, the then Commissioner for Transport, who is now Permanent Secretary for Transport and Housing (Transport), Joseph Lai Yee-tak, said the government did not encourage citizens to cycle on urban roads because of the potential dangers caused by ‘cyclists competing for road space with motor vehicles’.
The number of cyclists who died in traffic accidents had doubled to 20 last year from 2006, while the overall deaths in all traffic accidents last year had actually decreased by 11 percent, according to statistics from the Transport Department. The number of traffic accidents involving bicycles last year had also increased by half since 2006, compared to a less than five percent increase for all traffic accidents in the city.
Martin Turner, chairman of the Hong Kong Cycling Alliance and a long-time utility cyclist, says the increase in cycling accidents and deaths shows that more people are cycling not only for recreational purposes but for general transportation. He suggests the government has failed to consider their needs in its infrastructure planning – and there has also been a failure in educating drivers on cyclists’ rights on the roads, as well as how to overtake cyclists properly. “Cyclists’ basic skills involve dealing with other vehicles around,” says Turner. “If the government doesn’t recognise this and encourage
people to acquire cycling skills in traffic, cycling traffic deaths could keep going up.”
Last June, Turner was given a ticket for riding in the middle of Java Road in North Point, instead of riding near the kerb as recommended in the Transport Department’s non-binding ‘Road Users’ Code’. In December, a charge against him on the grounds of ‘careless cycling’ was dropped by the Department of Justice because it faced ‘a robust defence’, according to the alliance. In March this year, the government’s Road Safety Council issued new advice telling cyclists it is safer to ride in the middle of the lane when cycling in narrow carriageways or making turns.
Turner explains that riding near the kerb often invites drivers to overtake cyclists recklessly. “You only overtake when it’s safe. That’s the rule,” he says. “But too many motorists and government bureaucrats think somehow there’s an inherent right for the guy behind in the car to be getting ahead of the guy on the bike!”
Christine Loh Kung-wai, CEO of think-tank Civic Exchange, suggests that the government should assign cycling lanes to Hong Kong’s roads. “Instead of widening roads for more cars, Hong Kong can see what happens if we widen roads for cyclists and pedestrians,” says Loh, who has been tipped as the new Undersecretary for the Environment, although she is yet to make any comment on the rumour. “Cycling can be safe and pleasurable if it’s given priority. As people cycle, they will become better cyclists and thus safer cyclists.” Loh also raises the possibilities for cross-district cycling and for cyclists to travel with their bicycles on public transport.
So it’s still a tough battle to get around the city on two wheels. MTR bosses only allow folding bicycles which pass a size requirement on to trains. The Star Ferry’s Tsim Sha Tsui-Wan Chai line charges an additional $15.5 for bringing bicycles on board on weekdays. That’s about five times the charge for a single adult, compared to 1.3 times on a Kaohsiung ferry trip and 1.4 times on a Shanghai ferry trip.
And then there’s sport. The lack of support for seeing cycling as a necessary, sustainable method of transport has affected the overall interest in competitive cycling, according to Mark Leeper, a regular mountain biker. “Of course government officials are happy to come and applaud medal winners,” says Leeper, “but local cycling success is very much down to the efforts of individuals, such as Sarah Lee Wai-sze and Wong Kam-po, and their individual coaches.” According to Leeper, the government has given little support in developing young talent and has failed to prioritise ‘grassroots’ bike races, often because it prefers to ‘keep the roads permanently clear for drivers rather than approving temporary permits to close quiet roads for morning races’.
In 2005, 38-year-old champion cyclist Brendan Chiu Hsiu-hon was killed during a race in a head-on collision with a minibus on Hoi Ha Road in Sai Kung. The minibus driver was sentenced to eight months in prison and had a two-year licence suspension. “Minibus drivers are the worst in Hong Kong,” says Michael Pryde, a cyclist who has competed for the Hong Kong mountain biking team. “They can stop abruptly to pick up or drop off passengers.”
Michael Maddess, race director and course designer at sport-promoting group Action Asia Foundation, tells us that while police would like to have bicycle races on country park trails and off the roads, the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department prefers them to use roads instead of country park routes. “Both departments pass the buck and bikers suffer with few trails to ride on and even fewer races in Hong Kong,” he says.
Only cyclists with government-issued permits are allowed to ride on 10 country park trails. Despite urges from cycling groups for the AFCD to open other country park trails to cyclists, the department is yet to make any decision. But an AFCD spokesman has said accidents are ‘likely to happen’ when riding bicycles in places with pedestrians. Director of Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation, Alan Wong Chi-kong, said in a district council meeting in 2010 that he had worked on ‘thousands of cases’ involving citizens injured in bicycle accidents as well as citing complaints from citizens about having ‘too many bicycles around’.
“It’s ironic that Hong Kong riders have performed so well winning medals in international games by training outside the city,” says Maddess, “as most trails here are illegal to ride on.”
Update: The government announced on September 12 that Christine Loh Kung-wai has been appointed Undersecretary for the Environment and she has taken up office on the same day.
Cycling around the globe
The streets of Taiwan’s second-largest city, Kaohsiung, are just as busy as ours. However, the city is one of the most cycling-friendly cities in Asia. It has a growing network of bicycle trails (250km by late last year) and has almost 50 self-serviced public bike rental stations, providing a total of 4,500 public bicycles. The service is free for the first hour and then NT$10 ($2.60) for every subsequent half-hour.
Notorious for its complicated road system, heavy traffic and dense population, Guangzhou, one of the fastest-growing cities in China, provides a surprisingly good example of a sustainable transport system. According to local media reports, by early last year the city had a network of bike lanes adding up to more than 990km, connecting more than 50 subway stations with public bike rental kiosks. The cycling system is fully integrated with the city’s bus and subway systems.
Providing a free bike sharing system, this city is probably the most bicycle-friendly in the world. Half of the city’s residents are daily cyclists. This April, it opened its first ‘cycle superhighway’ out of 26 routes scheduled to be built to encourage more people to commute to and from the city on two wheels. While there is a good existing network of bike paths around Copenhagen, the cycle superhighways are being designed to ensure continuous, standardised routes into the city across long distances.
For Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding, the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, gave the happy couple a tandem bicycle to coincide with the city’s public bike sharing system, which was designed ‘for shorter journeys around the capital’. Besides four cycle superhighways similar to Copenhagen’s and another eight to be built, there are also bicycle lanes on the roads often with clear signs.
New York, USA
NYC has roads which are often congested with heavy traffic and streets packed with pedestrians. Yet, unlike Hong Kong, the city has a large cycling population which includes hordes of delivery and messenger services. Most streets provide no separate facilities for bikes so most cycling happens in the same lanes as the rest of the traffic. But there are also on-road bike lanes marked with paint and signage, as well as bike paths in parks which have been separated from both traffic and pedestrians.