By Aston Law
Gary Chan had heard of people getting arrested for riding electric bicycles, but his bike was different. “I invented my own,” he said, “and I could only test it on the road.”
Mr. Chan knew it was coming: he was arrested by the police in August 2014 for riding his solar-powered bicycle on a road in Kwun Tong. He was fined HK$3,000 for driving an unregistered vehicle and had his driver’s license suspended for a year.
Mr. Chan’s arrest, even though it was for riding a hybrid motorised bicycle, represents the prevailing attitude in Hong Kong toward bicycles: they are still not recognised by the government as a viable and efficient means of transportation.
Bicycle riding has become more popular than ever in Hong Kong. The first Hong Kong Cyclothon, a cycling festival hosted by the Hong Kong Tourism Board, was held in October with 3,600 participants. Sarah Lee Wai-sze won the first Olympic medal in cycling for Hong Kong in 2012 – and it is likely her win contributed to the cycling fever. Increasing numbers of enthusiasts pedal the roads, zipping through narrow alleys in the concrete jungle.
Although Hong Kongers may be following the global trend to use bicycles as an environmental friendly alternative to cars, the city has a long way to go before it catches up with other major metropolises.
In other cities like New York, Paris, and Taipei, bicycle riders are gaining government and private support. New York greatly expanded its bike lanes in the past decade, in part to meet the demand of 34,000 daily riders of Citi Bike, the city’s bike sharing programme. The Parisian bike sharing system, Vélib’, was launched in 2007 and is one of the world’s most successful programmes. In 2009, Taipei launched its bike sharing system, YouBike, and in six years, has expanded its rental service to three neighbouring cities. In early October, as a part of Mayor Boris Johnson’s 10-year plan to transform London into a cycling capital, the city opened the first section of its North-South Cycle Superhighway. Oslo boldly aims to ban all motor vehicles from its city centre by 2019, allowing only bicycles and pedestrians.
What is stopping Hong Kong from becoming the next bike-friendly city?
When legislator Wu Chi-wai asked the government in 2012 about its bicycle policy, Cheung Bing-leung, the Secretary for Transport and Housing, simply replied that the government “does not encourage the public to use bicycle as a transport mode in urban areas.” The Hong Kong government appears to believe that the city is too small and too densely populated.
The government’s attitude is embodied in the city’s first bike-sharing system, SmartBike, which was launched in 2014. It has 30 bicycles and is confined to the 1.8 km West Kowloon Waterfront Promenade. This programme, limited to a bunch of tourists, will do little to help regular Hongkongers.
Meanwhile, most of the roads in Hong Kong do not have cycling tracks, and where no tracks exist, the bicycle is treated by law as a motor vehicle. Cyclists can be fined HK$500 for cycling “without due care and attention or without reasonable consideration for other persons using the road,” according to the Road Traffic Ordinance.
The responsibility for managing bicycle riders in Hong Kong is scattered among different government departments. All bike lanes in Hong Kong are built by the Civil Engineering and Development Department and governed by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, while ordinary roads (and bicycle parking spaces) are built and governed by the Transport Department.
“We have double identities. On the road in urban areas, the law treats bicycles as vehicles, and we have to follow the Road Traffic Ordinance,” said Paddy Ng, who teamed up with Gary Chan to establish a bicycle workshop they call Wheel Thing Makers in To Kwa Wan. “But we are supposed to follow the Pleasure Grounds Regulation in places with bike lanes instead, because we are riding for leisure all of a sudden.”
Martin Turner, the chairman of the Hong Kong Cycling Alliance, a non-profit organisation that advocates a more bicycle-friendly city, complained that the government’s public transport planning puts too much stress on mass transit transport systems and has refused to take cycling into account. “It has a policy that it has been following for 20 years, and it hasn’t adapted in ways that other governments do,” he said.
Pressure on the government is growing, according to Turner, and he remains optimistic. “Hong Kong is ideal for cycling in so many ways,” he said. “Its compact urban areas are, at the moment, choking on vehicles. And yet even now, even with the complete lack of attention from the Transport Department, cycling is still the best way to get around town.”
Turner believes more people will come around to his view. “I have no doubt that cycling will continue to grow for leisure, sport, and especially for functional purposes,” he said. “How quickly it comes is about how willing the government is to face the reality and its responsibilities.”
But until the government does change, Mr. Chan and his solar-powered bicycle had better sit tight in the garage.
Aston Law writes about the ups and downs of the Asian city as well as stories from around the world. He was a regular contributor to the Commercial Radio Hong Kong website from 2013 to 2014. He is studying Journalism at the University of Hong Kong.