London, New York, Paris and Singapore all have one thing in common: cycling. In recent years, these global cities have embraced the bicycle as an eco-friendly mode of transportation, building cycle tracks and bike-share systems which reduce pollution, cut down on congestion and improve public health.
Not Hong Kong. Cycling here remains a marginal part of urban life. But why? The usual answers point to the city’s extreme density, topography and climate. There’s not much space on the roads, the city’s hills are a challenge to climb and the hot, rainy weather does not lend itself to a pleasant ride.
Cycling advocates say these are excuses, not reasons. Taipei has a nearly identical climate to Hong Kong, but it has built urban bike paths and a popular bike-sharing system. The number of daily bike trips in hilly San Francisco has doubled since 2006. And even the narrow, jam-packed streets of central Paris and Lower Manhattan now make room for cyclists.
Hong Kong’s aversion to cycling comes down to policy. While the government promotes cycling as a healthy weekend activity in the New Territories, where 218 kilometres of cycle tracks have been built, it does not consider it to be a form of transportation.
This policy means that, even when cycling infrastructure does exist, cyclists are considered to be riding for entertainment, not to get from A to B. They are expected to dismount whenever they cross a road, and bicycle parking, cycle tracks and other facilities are often located far from schools, MTR stations, shopping malls and markets. Bicycles parked illegally along roadside fences are confiscated and sold for scrap. In recent years, New Territories residents have staged protests against the lack of bicycle parking.
In the urban areas, there are no protected cycle tracks or bicycle lanes, even along Victoria Harbour. Cross harbour tunnels and all highways prohibit cyclists. Public transportation doesn’t encourage bicycle usage either. The Star Ferry only allows bicycles on the Tsim Sha Tsui-Wan Chai route, and if cyclists want to use the MTR, they need to remove the front wheel of their bike. Buses have no bicycle racks and they only allow passengers to carry folding bikes if they are concealed in a bag.
“Few companies in Hong Kong, even multi-national corporations, have facilities for employees cycling to work because they haven’t fully embraced this lifestyle change.”
If you’re an office worker who wants to cycle to work, don’t count on there being anywhere to park your bike, or take a shower before your first meeting. Ricky Lau, Head of Office Leasing at Savills, says, “Few companies in Hong Kong, even multi-national corporations, have facilities for employees cycling to work because they haven’t fully embraced this lifestyle change.”
Rules of the road
Education is another problem. Hong Kong drivers are not taught how to interact with cyclists and don’t know that cyclists have the same right to use the road. In addition, most Hongkongers have no experience of how to responsibly ride a bike. Cycling in the New Territories on a Sunday can be a hair-raising experience as leisure riders wobble down the path and stop suddenly without warning. There have also been many serious accidents involving cyclists, due to the attitudes of drivers.
The benefits of cycling
Cycling has many health benefits: it’s a fun, easy way to burn calories and improve your cardiovascular system. And like walking, it’s a good way to get to know your city.
But there are other benefits, too. With ever-worsening roadside air pollution and traffic congestion, Hong Kong may want to do more to encourage urban cycling. Dedicating a lane of traffic to bicycles might seem absurd in a city as crowded as this, but the experience of other cities around the world has shown that the less space there is for cars, the fewer people bother driving – a phenomenon known as Braess' paradox.
The same can be said for tools like congestion charging, which has reduced traffic in central London by 10 percent since it was implemented in 2003. Meanwhile, the number of people cycling in London has reached a record high, thanks partly to the pro-cycling Mayor of London, Boris Johnson.
Most people in Hong Kong already take public transport, yet the streets of neighbourhoods like Mong Kok are filled with private cars. Maybe some of that space should be given over to bicycles instead.
With a well-established network of cycle tracks, the New Territories would be a good place to start improving Hong Kong’s policies to encourage more everyday cycling.
There’s an economic benefit to cycling, too: with better infrastructure, tourists could take advantage of Hong Kong’s beautiful natural scenery to go on cycling tours.
Hongkongers already like to bike
When the opportunity to cycle exists, Hongkongers are keen to take it: a 2009 study by the district council in Sha Tin, Hong Kong’s most bicycle-friendly area, found that 33.5 percent of the area’s 630,000 residents cycle more than once a week. It could be the rest of us are waiting for the same opportunity.