Sha Tin district councillor seeks to launch city's first bicycle-share system

Although policymakers refuseto embrace cycling as a green mode of transport for the city, a district councillor is gearing up to launch a bike-sharing scheme in Sha Tin, writes Elaine Yau

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 March, 2014, 10:04am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 March, 2014, 10:29am

If Gary Yeung Man-yui had his way, Sha Tin would become a "cycling city". A keen advocate of bicycles as an eco-friendly and inexpensive form of transport, Yeung's first motion as Sha Tin district councillor in 2008 was to propose that the council introduce a bike-sharing and rental scheme.

Sha Tin district, stretching from Tai Wai to Fo Tan and Ma On Shan in the eastern New Territories, is ideal for such an initiative, with its large population and flat land. Many residents are already using bicycles to run errands, commute between neighbourhoods, or ride directly to work.

The government sees bicycles as a leisure tool instead of an eco-friendly means of transport
Gary Yeung

But after years of unsuccessful lobbying, Yeung, who also heads the Ma On Shan Youth Association, is pushing ahead to launch his own scheme at the end of the year.

"I have been talking to the government for so many years, but nothing has come of it. So I've decided to run a pilot myself through the youth association," he says.

He expects to assemble a fleet of about 140 bicycles to link seven pick-up and drop-off points, including the Science Park, Sha Tin Town Hall and University Station. The first 30 minutes will be free; after that users are charged between HK$3 and HK$5 for each half hour.

The start-up will require about HK$5 million but Yeung is confident he will raise the capital from charities and sponsors, and hopes to break even within three years of the launch.

"We can run adverts at the rental area, and on bicycles and the app that we are developing for service. Users can click a button on the app to unlock the bike," he says.

Yeung believes the bike-sharing scheme can achieve three goals. "It can lessen illegal parking; reduce greenhouse gas emissions and encourage people to exercise."

Illegal bicycle parking is a serious problem in Sha Tin, he says, because people don't have space at home to keep their bikes.

But despite the surging popularity of cycling and its social benefits, it barely registers on policymakers' list of priorities. The recent policy address of chief executive Leung Chun-ying gave only a brief mention to promoting a bicycle-friendly environment in new towns and development areas.

Cycling and environmental groups believe the government should do more to develop the use of bicycles as an alternative form of transport.

Lee Chi-man, president of Slow-Mo Classic, a group that promotes cycling and organises bike tours, says officials do not really factor cycling into urban planning.

Cycling in Hong Kong is largely confined to the New Territories, which has most of the city's 218 kilometres of cycling paths. Another 104 kilometres under construction reinforces that suburban slant: the trail will traverse Tuen Mun, Sha Tin, Ma On Shan, Tsuen Wan and Tai Po districts.

Yet cities such as Paris, Taipei, and even Shenzhen have introduced cycling paths in their urban cores, Lee says.

"The harbour front running from Sheung Wan to North Point on Hong Kong island can easily accommodate a cycling path. The bikes won't hog any road surface and there's no need for land reclamation," Lee says.

Hong Kong Cycling Information Net has also lobbied the government for years to build a cycling path along the waterfront, says Jim Lai Ho-man, a spokesman for the group. "But they rejected us two years ago, citing lack of support infrastructure."

He contrasts Hong Kong officials' response to cycling schemes with that in Taiwan, where the authorities have initiated a bike-sharing scheme and citizens are taught good cycling etiquette from childhood.

"Taiwanese people know that cars should give way to bikes, which should give way to pedestrians," Lai says.

That's why they don't need to cordon off cycling paths, and cyclists can be allowed on walkways without worry about collisions with pedestrians.

As Yeung sees it, the greatest obstacle for bike-sharing is that the government "sees bicycles as a leisure tool instead of an eco-friendly means of transport".

There is no attempt to develop policy or to assign a key department to co-ordinate regulatory measures. To get the bike-sharing scheme off the ground, for instance, he must secure approval from the Leisure and Cultural Services, Housing, Transport and Highways departments, all four which have oversight on cycling activities.

If the bike-sharing pilot takes off, Yeung hopes the government will eventually take over the venture.

"It's difficult for a bike-sharing programme to break even. There must be government support for such a project, which serves the common good. In other countries, it's usually governments which initiate the scheme and provide financial support. They just get an outside institution to run it."

So far, the only government support Yeung has received is the use of a small piece of land where he can store his bikes for a nominal fee. He has the backing of his district council, which commissioned a feasibility study of bike sharing in Sha Tin. However, the council lacks the resources to fund the scheme.

Ng Sai-leung, a professor in the department of geography resource management at Chinese University, conducted the study which also compared similar schemes in Paris, Hangzhou and Taipei.

He agrees the Sha Tin bike programme faces many obstacles.

Most importantly, financial viability will be difficult to achieve because rental fees alone are usually insufficient to cover the operating costs, such as insurance, maintenance and staff salaries. Fees must be kept relatively low to encourage take-up, so the remainder must either come from government subsidies or other revenue streams, Ng says.

The Paris programme, run by a media company similar to Roadshow in Hong Kong, is the only one to make money so far - thanks in no small part to it having won the right to operate hundreds of advertising billboards beyond the bike rental area.

Hangzhou's scheme, the world's biggest, is operated by the city public transport administration. But even with government subsidy, it is a loss-making venture.

Taipei's experience is the most promising. Run by bike manufacturer Giant as a corporate green mission, the Youbike system has been operating at a loss since its launch in 2009 despite benefiting from government tax incentives.

However, with constant improvements, Youbike has become increasingly popular and Giant chief executive Anthony Lo announced earlier this month the Taipei scheme was expected to break even this year. Meanwhile, the public bike rental service is being extended to Changhua county and the company is in talks to expand Youbike to Taichung.

Ng says rolling out a bike-sharing scheme would help Hong Kong establish a green image. The government could learn from the experiences of Paris and Taipei and collaborate with other businesses to offset the operating costs.

His study estimated that greenhouse gas emissions could be cut by 23 tonnes a year if bike-sharing were introduced in Sha Tin. His calculation is based on the assumption that each bike would be rented about five times every day, with at least one kilometre being logged on each trip.

The trial bike scheme should be launched in phases, as Taipei had done, he says. "In Taipei, they introduced it only in Xinyi district at the beginning and later expanded to five districts."

Ng also proposed buying cheaper bikes - a sturdy HK$1,200 model made by a firm in Zhuzhou prefecture, Hunan - to start with. The Paris scheme's bikes are expensive and cost about HK$11,000 because they are fitted with special wheels and screws that make stolen bikes harder to modify.

Such specially made options could be considered later if the trial is effective, Ng says.

However, cycling advocates and green groups will have a hard time changing the government mindset.

In a reply to Legco in February, Secretary for Transport and Housing Cheung Bing-leung reiterated the official stance: the government does not encourage residents to use bicycles as a means of transport on urban roads, where traffic is busy. And it's difficult to carve out space in urban areas for cycling paths, Cheung said.

In the meantime, they will continue to look for suitable areas in new town and new developments to install cycling paths and related facilities so that residents can safely use bicycles for short trips or for fun.

However, this is blinkered thinking, Yeung says, and Hong Kong lags many cities in incorporating bicycles into the transport net.

"Even the mainland is doing so much better than us. Once you cross the border, you can see bicycles being used all around Sha Tau Kok," he adds.

"To encourage people to cycle, train stations in Japan installed bike parking areas underground. When a commuter arrives at his train station after work, he presses a button and the bike will rise up from the underground storage area for him to ride home.

Hong Kong, Yeung says, "should exercise some creativity".

You've got to roll with it

As preparations are made for a pilot bike-sharing programme in Sha Tin, a small scheme is being rolled out next month at the West Kowloon Cultural District.

The Smartbike programme will feature 80 bikes that can be picked up and dropped off at two stations. Cyclists will be able to make use of a 1.8-kilometre trail along the waterfront as well as a mini-cycling ground in the headland area of the district.

An authority spokesman says the public responded enthusiastically to a trial held over 15 days in February using 20 bikes. "About 1,600 people joined the programme."

They will engage a social enterprise to operate the scheme and details will be announced later, he says.