The thigh ground

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 July, 2010, 12:00am

Cities change according to design plans. Expect the unexpected. Fundamental changes are happening. Many of the world's great cities are moving away from cars to thigh power - yes, walking and cycling. It isn't just low-density European cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen that have done it; New York and even Los Angeles have also gotten into the act.

Crowded New York currently has 725 kilometres of cycling lanes and will quadruple that figure by 2030. Walking is already a popular way of getting around, especially in Manhattan. Now, with bike lanes designed into the city's future plan, cycling and walking will be its main low-carbon modes of mobility.

Amsterdam, also a pleasant city for walking, helped New York plan its bike lanes. The Dutch are probably the world's most committed cyclists - half of the 1.5 million residents of Amsterdam ride a bike every day! Remarkably, even people over 65 make a quarter of all their trips by bikes.

Possibly more surprising is the planning that is under way in car-heaven Los Angeles - where the car is king, vehicular pollution a major problem, public transport an afterthought and walking unfashionable. The city is spread out and people have to drive everywhere. Nevertheless, Los Angeles plans to spend US$230 million to create 2,730 kilometres of cycling paths - most of it in the next five years.

The Los Angeles plan is quite amazing. Along the biking lanes there will be changing rooms, bike storage services and also showers. A cyclist can get cleaned up before going to work in the morning, since he could be coming from quite a distance.

These services will apparently be operated by city authorities as well as private businesses. Officials responsible for the project say cycling is seen as a way to increase mobility in this sprawling city because there simply cannot be any more cars on the road. They feel, in other words, that the city has reached its capacity for coping with cars.

Hong Kong, too, can't cope with more cars. But government officials don't really think of cycling as a mode of transport. They see it only as recreation. In May, transport officials said they did not encourage cycling in urban areas. As for walking, pedestrians have a raw deal. Just look at how many people walk in some of the busiest parts of the city, every hour of every day, but they have to squeeze onto narrow pavements. Jaywalking is common because of the unfriendly pedestrian conditions. Yet pedestrian zones are rare in a place that should give priority to them.

In Hong Kong, road planning has priority over town planning. This means roads go first while the rest of the town planning process follows. This doesn't make sense, but that's the way it is here. We end up with results dominated by a mindset that gives priority to moving vehicles, which in Hong Kong includes public transport, but treat pedestrians and cyclists as unimportant.

The public mindset is shifting, however. According to a study by the district council in Sha Tin - home to 600,000 people - 33.5 per cent of those residents cycle more than once a week and 65 per cent see cycling as a mode of transport, not just recreation. Cyclists are also speaking out about how the city can be redesigned.

Making cycling easier in any city requires policies to create an extensive network of cycling lanes and provision for bike parking; getting other vehicles to slow down; modifying road intersections; integrating bicycles with public transport; and public education.

Just imagine that Hong Kong's next chief executive, to be selected in 2012, decided to turn our city into one that is friendly to walking and cycling, with low levels of carbon emissions and roadside pollution. Try to visualise the secretaries for transport and development working together to replan the city, making room for pedestrians and cyclists. Imagine them collaborating with the environment secretary to reduce emissions, and improve public health and the environment. Would you support such a plan?

Christine Loh Kung-wai is chief executive of the think tank Civic Exchange