Don’t let Hong Kong remain the ‘worst city for cyclists’
Peter Kammerer says a government that refuses to see the myriad benefits of using bikes to commute is doing a disservice to its people
There's a simple way of seeing how interested a government is in serving its people. Get a bike and try to ride it along a busy street. If the ride is hair-raising, even dangerous, it's clear that health, well-being and the environment are being put second to the economy. I'll even go a step further and say that this is a way of determining how forward-thinking those in charge of a city are.
With these parameters in mind, let's turn to a blog posting by musician and mad-keen cyclist, David Byrne. The former frontman for the band Talking Heads travels the world with a folding bicycle and uses it to get a feel for his surroundings. During a visit to our city in 2009, he wrote: "I would like to congratulate Hong Kong for being the worst city for cyclists that I have encountered in the whole world. That's saying a lot. Worse than Napoli. Worse than Istanbul. Worse than Manila." Although that was written five years ago, I'm assured by local cyclists that nothing has changed; you're taking your life into your hands if you venture off the purpose-built recreational cycling paths around Sha Tin and Tai Po.
The government has a stated policy that cycles are mostly for leisure activities. They are viewed as inappropriate for use in urban areas as a way of getting to work or school. This is despite the global trend of embracing them for being zero-polluting, an inexpensive way to commute and helping improve a community's fitness and health. With climate change and obesity being worldwide threats, governments from Mexico City and Sydney to Taipei and Paris are investing in urban bike lanes and encouraging or funding bike-sharing and rental schemes.
Not in Hong Kong, though. The idea that anyone would want to use a bike for anything other than sport or fun is shot down by authorities with a barrage of excuses; safety concerns, narrow roads and an unfavourable climate are most cited. Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying laid out the government's thinking in a brief mention in his last policy address, saying that authorities would work towards a bicycle-friendly environment in new towns and development areas of the New Territories.
Yet it is in our city's urban core on the north side of Hong Kong Island and in Kowloon where bikes would be most beneficial. A rental scheme and places to lock up bikes would help reduce air pollution and improve community fitness. What better way to start the day than to cycle smugly past rows of drivers fuming in traffic jams?
But while there are no laws blocking a cycling culture and more than 100 associations represent interests, the government has yet to adopt a positive mentality. A bicycle corridor along the harbourfront from Sheung Wan to North Point has long been talked about, but remains far from reality. The rising number of licensed private vehicles in Hong Kong proves where the government's heart really lies. Nor are public transport companies as user-friendly as might be expected: the MTR considers bicycles to be bulky items and requires that they be either folded or have their wheels removed.
Cycling is not for everyone. But the benefits bikes bring should not be restricted by blinkered government thinking. They should be considered as much a part of public transport as buses, trains and trams.
Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post