Cyclists Fight for a Place in Hong Kong

Martin Turner has a way of getting to work that is faster than the MTR and much cheaper than a taxi: he rides a bike. For most of his ten years working at a marketing firm in Wan Chai, Turner has commuted from his North Point home by bicycle. “It takes about 15 minutes door to door,” he said. “That’s about half the time it would take by public transport.”

Across the harbour, Charlie Wong Liang-yih works as a graphic designer from his home in Mongkok. When he leaves his flat to visit friends in other parts of Kowloon, he often takes his bike. “Before, people thought it was ridiculous to ride a bicycle around Hong Kong, but more and more people use them to get around,” he said.

People in dozens of neighbourhoods across Hong Kong use bicycles to commute to train stations, work and to run daily errands, but the government officially recognizes cycling only as a form of recreation, not as transport — something cycling activists are fighting to change.

Every day, according to a 2004 Transport Department study on cycling, more than 65,000 bicycle trips are made, mainly by people biking from their homes to train stations, schools, workplaces and shops.

Other studies suggest the number of daily bike trips is actually much higher. Last year, the Shatin District Council commissioned a study on cycling in the district, which is home to more than 600,000 people, and found that 33.5 percent of the population cycles more than once a week. The study also reported that 65 percent of residents perceive cycling as “an important mode of transport” and that each Shatin family owns, on average, about two bicycles.

One of the more surprising results, said the district councillor who spearheaded the study, Gary Yeung Man-yui, was the discrepancy between the number of bicycles in Shatin and the amount of bicycle parking: 150,000 bikes but just 10,617 parking spots.

“Residents [ride] bicycles as transportation in their daily life within the district,” but Shatin’s cycle tracks are designed for leisure, not for getting around the neighbourhood, he said. “The government is not doing enough to accommodate cyclists and promote cycling.”

Last month, the Transport and Housing Bureau issued a statement to a Legislative Council panel on transport, saying that “we do not encourage the use of bicycles as a transport mode in urban areas” because road space is limited and Hong Kong has a good network of public transportation.

It did note, however, that “cycling is a healthy recreational activity that has gained increased popularity in recent years.” It is currently studying the possibility of expanding the network of cycle tracks in the New Territories.

For Turner, this is not nearly enough. “There is an enormous number of bicycles here — more than cars — and cycling can benefit Hong Kong is so many ways, by being healthy, by reducing noise and pollution,” he said.

Since 2005, Turner has been one of the most active members of the Hong Kong Cycling Alliance, a group established to push the government to reform its cycling policies. “We look at the government as the source of any change,” he said. “Not recognizing cycling as a form of transport is front and centre.”

The government officially discourages on-road cycling, yet there are few cycle tracks that run between residential areas, shopping districts and train stations. A lack of bicycle parking means that cyclists must chain them to roadside railings, where they are often confiscated by government workers. “The government its failing its duty to look after the needs of the people of Hong Kong,” said Turner.

Another Cycling Alliance member is Osman Lee, who grew up in Tai Po and has gotten around by bike for most of his life. He joined the Alliance three years ago after he was pushed off his bike by joggers who were upset that he had asked them to move off a cycle track.

“Cycling in Tai Po, you feel a little bit like a criminal,” he said. “But we have no choice — it’s the best way to get around.” At least a third of his neighbours and friends get around by bike, he said, and they are frustrated by the lack of parking facilities and a feeling that police, drivers and pedestrians do not respect their right of way.

“If you ride your bike on the sidewalk, the police will certainly give you a ticket,” said Lee. “But they don’t do anything about people walking on the cycle tracks. People are upset, but they don’t complain to anyone, because they don’t think anything will be done.”

Part of the problem, said Chan Shing, a Tai Po bike shop owner, is that there are few attempts to educate anyone on cyclists’ rights and responsibilities. “There’s nothing to teach cyclists to learn how to ride properly, so they ignore all the rules and drivers give them no respect,” he said. “Unless they follow the rules, the police won’t treat them well.”

Drivers need to be educated too, said Lee. Once, in Kowloon Tong, an angry driver pushed him to the side of the road. Turner said he is often cut off by taxi and bus drivers.

The combination of reckless cyclists and hostile drivers has resulted in a high number of cyclist deaths and injuries. So far this year, according to the police, there have been seven cycling-related deaths, 91 serious injuries and 665 slight injuries.

Improving cycling education is only one step that needs to be taken, said Roy Ng, who deals with cycling issues for the Conservancy Association. “What we need is to think about cycling on the policy level, not just in terms of getting easy jobs done like building some new cycle tracks,” he said. “We need to better educate people about road-sharing. Vehicles think they have some kind of supreme status but cyclists have the right to share the road.”

Paul Zimmerman, co-founder of Designing Hong Kong, said it would be a good start to identify “cycling districts” where cycling facilities can be improved, road-sharing can be encouraged and cycling can be promoted as a way to get around the district.

“By identifying cycling districts, you’ll be able to identify areas that are suitable for cycling and others that are less suitable,” he said. “All the new towns in the New Territories could be recognized as cycling districts. There are already cycling tracks, a lot of people using bicycles, and the road reserves in all those new towns are quite wide.”

Zimmerman feels the government has not been receptive to such ideas. “The official argument that they always uses is that there is no space on the roads, even in areas like Tseung Kwan O, which has not been fully developed,” said Zimmerman. “When a road is going to be widened, we ask if space will be provided for cyclists, they’ll say no. So it’s just a choice they’ve made to not accommodate cyclists.”

In response to questions about its cycling policies, the Transport Department reiterated that it does not believe Hong Kong’s urban environment — New Territories or otherwise — is appropriate for cycling. It has, however, committed to building more cycle tracks alongside major roads, rivers and footpaths in new town developments. It will also launch an online “Cycling Information Centre” to help cyclists find parking spots and cycle routes.

On the whole, though, Hong Kong’s transport planning guidelines offer little flexibility in dealing with bikes, mandating a fixed design for cycle tracks and warning that such concepts as on-street bike lanes are “not suitable for conditions in Hong Kong.” But such approaches have become popular in other cities, and cycling advocates argue that there are many other densely-populated, congested cities that promote cycling and could serve as models for Hong Kong.

In Shatin, Gary Yeung wants the government to implement a public bike-sharing system, similar to what is already in place in cities like Paris, Hangzhou and Montreal. Turner points to Singapore as an example of an Asian city that recently reversed its recreation-only cycling policy and has begun to promote cycling as form of transport.

“It’s the cycling activists that put pressure on the government, which eventually has to respond,” said Shawn Micallef, one of the editors of Spacing, a magazine about public space in Toronto. Two decades ago, he said, cycling in Toronto was something done by sports enthusiasts and eccentrics. Now it’s a key part of the city’s transportation plan.

Micallef said the transition was gradual. “Mainstream folk never identify as cyclists. That’s the key part. A lot of people just see themselves as trying to get through the city and they happen to be using a bike. That’s something that grows organically, one bicycle at a time.”

Turner echoes that sentiment. “People who live where cycling is normal don’t think of themselves as cyclists — it’s just Mrs. Wong taking her kids to school and then going to the shop.” he said. “Having the government recognize that is a hard battle, but I’m confident we can do it. It’s just a question of the government recognizing reality.”

Bike paths can be found throughout the New Territories, but they are designed primarily for recreation, and cyclists complain about poor maintenance and dangerous design, such as bollards located in the middle of the pathway

With little bicycle parking available, cyclists are forced to chain their bikes to sidewalk railings, which is illegal and may result in their removal

Even when parking is provided, like at this ferry pier in Mui Wo, cyclists complain that racks are poorly-designed and there are not enough spaces

The Transport Department claims that 70 percent of bike trips in Hong Kong are made for recreation, but cycling advocate Martin Lee said that figure is closer to 20 percent, citing flaws in the methodology of a 2004 study

Another version of this story was originally published in the South China Morning Post on June 27, 2010.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Sunday June 27 2010at 08:06 am , filed under Asia Pacific, Public Space, Society and Culture, Transportation and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Comments are closed.