Hong Kong: Plenty of Bikes, Nowhere to Park

On an abandoned stretch of road in Sai Kung, a row of lumpy objects covered by a blue-and-white tarp looks alarmingly like a pile of bodies. A closer investigation reveals a graveyard of a different sort: hundreds of bicycles confiscated by the government.

Last year, 10,846 bicycles were removed from sidewalk railings, lampposts and other government-owned property. Illegal bicycle parking is such a problem in the New Territories and Islands District that the Home Affairs Department has issued a television announcement urging cyclists to only park their bicycles in designated parking areas.

That might be harder than it sounds. A study completed last year for the Sha Tin District Council revealed that there are just 10,617 legal parking spots for the district’s 150,000 bikes. The same shortage of legal bicycle parking spaces is replicated throughout the city.

Every month, Legco member Albert Chan Wai-yip receives hundreds of complaints about bicycle parking from his constituents in New Territories West.

“In some places like Mui Wo and Cheung Chau, bicycles are the main form of transportation. People use them to go to the ferry pier, to go shopping and run errands, but there is insufficient parking,” he said. “When new public housing estates opened in Tung Chung and Tin Shui Wai, we received thousands of complaints. There was no bicycle parking near the MTR stations but there were hundreds or even thousands of people riding their bicycles there every day.”

In recent years, the Housing Department has made a point of building more bicycle parking in its public housing estates, “but it’s still insufficient,” said Chan. Meanwhile, the Transport Department, which is responsible for bicycle parking elsewhere, has been slow to increase the number of spots around train stations and shopping hubs.

The Planning Department’s guidelines call for 30 parking spots to be built outside MTR stations for every 10,000 people who live within a two-kilometre radius, but Martin Turner, a member of the Hong Kong Cycling Alliance, says that this doesn’t even come close to meeting the need in areas like Tin Shui Wai, where a large proportion of the population gets around the neighbourhood by bike.

“The government fails to understand that all these bikes parked on public land are a symptom of a bigger problem,” he said. “We need parking areas big and small, not just at transport hubs but on high streets and in places where people live.”

A lack of clear cycling data makes it difficult to determine how much new parking is needed. At the moment, there is no official data on the number of cyclists, bicycles and daily bike trips in Hong Kong. Last year, three government departments commissioned a survey to determine what kind of bicycle parking cyclists feel is needed, but the results have not yet been released.

In the meantime, the Transport Department plans to build an additional 1,000 bicycle parking spaces over the next 18 months. “It’s a drop in the ocean,” said Turner, adding that it won’t do much to solve the problem of illegal bicycle parking.

Ironically, the shortage of legal bicycle parking spaces is exacerbated by the problem of abandoned bicycles. A study published last year by the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, an American university, found that, on average, abandoned bicycles occupied 36 percent of the bicycle parking spaces available in Tin Shui Wai.

Every year, the government conducts more than 200 bicycle clearance operations in a byzantine process that involves five government departments, the police, district offices and private contractors.

After an area has been targeted for clearance, notices are attached to bicycles and their owners are given a week to move them. If the bikes are not moved, the Home Affairs Department will coordinate a clearance operation in conjunction with the local district office, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department and the police. After a private contractor clears the bikes, they taken over by the Lands Department, which stores them in pounds across Hong Kong.

Eventually, the bikes are sold at biweekly government auctions by the Government Logistics Department — if they survived the clearance process. A video of a clearance operation posted to YouTube by a Tai Po cyclist shows bicycles being grabbed by a mechanical claw and dropped roughly into a large dump truck.

The process is so complicated that many of the government departments contacted were unsure of the role and responsibilities of the other departments they worked with. Officials in the Sai Kung District Lands Office, which manages the pound next to Hiram’s Highway, were unsure as to how many bicycles it contained and when they would be given to the Logistics Department for auction.

In May, the government’s ombudsman issued a stern warning to the government to get its act together when it came to clearing bicycles, accusing the Transport Department of “using excuses to evade its responsibility for tackling the problem.”

Until that changes, it seems unlikely that the problem of illegal parking can be solved anytime soon, said Chan. Last year, he took a fact-finding trip to study Amsterdam’s urban planning policies. “The way people use bicycles in Amsterdam is not so different from Tung Chung, except there, it’s much more civilized, and there’s always parking,” he said. “Nobody has to park illegally.”

Bicycles illegally parked along a sidewalk railing in Sham Shui Po, a district with virtually no bicycle parking spots

A good deal for broken bikes

When the government seizes a bicycle, discards a computer or comes across an abandoned toaster in a public housing estate, it sells them to the public by auction at the Government Logistics Centre, a large, nearly windowless building on the Chai Wan waterfront.

Last Thursday morning, about 60 people, crowded into a small room, hoping to score a good deal on a huge array of goods, from air conditioners to rice cookers and even a Mercedes Benz (keys not included).

Among the items for sale: a batch of 63 bicycles seized by the government from Tin Yan Estate in Yuen Long. It took less than 30 seconds bidding until the batch was sold for HK$2,600 — just HK$41 per bike. “That’s the norm for bicycles,” said an auction employee.

The sale came attached with a warning, however: the bikes “may not function properly,” said the government auction guide. Indeed, the Housing Department employee responsible for the bikes said, “They’re like rubbish — they don’t work anymore.”

The man who bought the bicycles declined to answer any questions. According to cycling activists, most bikes bought at government auction are sold for scrap. In Japan and Korea, however, there are schemes to send unwanted bicycles to poor countries for re-use.

This story was originally published in the South China Morning Post on July 25, 2010

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Sunday July 25 2010at 08:07 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.

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