Let's get on our bikes, cyclists tell officials

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 May, 2009, 12:00am

Riding a bicycle to work may seem like an act of madness to most Hongkongers, but it is a dream that is attainable if the government starts integrating cycling into the transport system, a forum has heard.

In a first for the city, experts, cyclists and frustrated members of the public urged the government yesterday to turn what had been seen as a sometimes difficult recreational activity into a regular mode of transport to make Hong Kong more liveable.

They also called for a review of transport planning, cycling districts in areas such as Kai Tak and Tseung Kwan O, and a cyclist advisory board with community, sport and professional representatives.

Jan van der Grift, who was invited to Hong Kong to share the Netherlands' experience in making cycling part of the national transport strategy, said it had faced similar constraints in transforming itself from a country dependent on cars into a greener, cycling-based community.

Mr van der Grift is the co-ordinator of Interface for Cycling Expertise, an international non-governmental organisation that promotes low-cost mobility and integrated cycling planning.

'When you have congestion, you build more roads,' he said. 'New roads attract more cars and you build more roads.

'It's a vicious circle. You have got to find a new balance of different forms of transport.'

Mr van der Grift, who is also a city planner and a landscape architect, said vehicles took up much more space than bicycles, which generated zero pollutants.

The Netherlands, like Hong Kong, allowed motorised transport to dominate from 1950 to 1975.

But the transport system underwent an overhaul in the 1970s and, since 1989, cycling has been firmly part of the nation's transport policy.

The first city to pioneer cycling-friendly infrastructure was Houten, whose large network of bike paths made it convenient to cycle to various destinations. Other cities quickly followed, adopting 2-metre-wide cycling tracks on roads and narrowing lanes to 3 metres, forcing vehicle drivers to share roads with cyclists.

To improve safety, cyclists' waiting areas were built at traffic lights and speed ramps added on roads in residential developments to slow cars down.

To educate the public about sharing roads and driving carefully, Dutch children must pass a traffic exam at the age of 10 that incorporates theory and a riding test.

More than 80 per cent of Dutch citizens now own at least one bicycle. They cycle to work, take children to school and go shopping by bike.

'We don't have lots of space either and our streets are narrow,' Mr van der Grift said, comparing the streets in the cities of the Netherlands to Hong Kong's streets.

Ferries operating in the Netherlands also allowed cyclists to take their bicycles free in non-peak hours, while trains charged cyclists Euro6.50 (HK$70).

Members of the audience pointed out that in Hong Kong, few ferry companies allowed cyclists aboard and they were often barred from MTR stations.

Mr van der Grift said that even though the Netherlands had the lowest traffic fatality rate in Europe, implementing the pro-cycling strategy had not been without problems. There had been campaigns about too many children on bicycles being killed in traffic accidents, he said.

The government had tightened the laws so that drivers who hit cyclists were deemed guilty unless they could prove they were innocent.

'Drivers opposed the policy in the beginning,' Mr van der Grift said. 'But now everyone agrees because people have become part-time cyclists too.'

The only problem that has yet to be solved is theft. Cyclists have had their bikes stolen or damaged from time to time in parking spaces.

'Bicycles are perfect for a compact city like Hong Kong,' Mr van der Grift said. 'It's a question of will.'