It's strange how the wheel of life turns.

The automobile was widely snubbed when introduced into Hong Kong, at the start of the 20th century. The expensive imports were "unreliable, especially on hills, and as they were open to the elements, would not have suited the hot climate", explains historian Paul Smethurst. So Hong Kong's narrow streets "remained a flurry of rickshaws, pedestrians and steel bicycles for the next few decades".

During the post-war boom, however, the bicycle - a tool for the poor and a plaything for the young - was progressively cast aside.

"Motorised transport soon took [the bicycle's] place, with the take up of cars being fuelled by the desire to display wealth and rank - an aspiration that lingers to this day," the University of Hong Kong professor says. Hong Kong's love affair with the automobile has now reached alarming proportions: private ownership rose 40 per cent in the 10 years from 2003, as the population grew just 6.7 per cent.

Many other major cities have faced the problem of too many cars and not enough space. Some have slapped on congestion charges, others have improved public transport. But they've all embraced the bicycle. That once-cumbersome assembly of steel and rubber has morphed into a carbon fibre and alloy "must have" - a green machine as commonplace in the financial hubs of London and New York as a cup of ostentatiously named coffee.

Costing nothing to power while promising greater physical and environmental health, the bicycle has been welcomed by governments everywhere as the future of transport. Everywhere, it seems, except Hong Kong.

Smethurst is the author of The Bicycle: Towards a Global History, charting the rise, fall and resurgence of the bicycle over the past century. Hong Kong's participation in the bike's comeback is notable by its absence. And that irks Martin Turner.

"When so many countries and cities around the world are embracing cycling - including all our major regional rivals - the obligation is on the government to look seriously at how the opportunities that cycling brings can work here, too," says the chairman of the Hong Kong Cycling Alliance, which aims to turn the city into a bike-friendly and enabled environment. "There are 1.5 billion people commuter cycling around the world: the starting point is that cycling is completely normal. Is Hong Kong so fundamentally different from the rest of the world?"

Turner, 53, is a "utility cyclist" who believes the bicycle should be used as a form of transport, not merely for recreation.

Some might argue he's fighting a losing battle. As London builds a "cycling superhighway" - a 24km high-speed cycleway stretching from west to east through the heart of the city - Hong Kong is preoccupied with building the world's longest vehicular bridge.

London's new infrastructure is part of a bold plan by Mayor Boris Johnson: a £900 million (HK$11 billion) vision for cycling in the city. "Cycling will be treated not as niche, marginal or an afterthought, but as what it is," he wrote in his 2013 vision document, "an integral part of the transport network, with capital spending, road space and traffic planners' attention befitting that role."

Hong Kong's Transport Department takes a very different view.

"The government does not encourage the use of the bicycle as a transport mode in the urban area," says a spokesman. Hong Kong is "small and densely populated", roads in urban areas are "narrow and crowded", traffic is "heavy" and the surrounding areas and footpaths are congested.

"If a cycle lane is provided at the expense of the reduction of traffic lanes, it will inevitably cause serious traffic congestion problems."

Of which Hong Kong has many. The latest report on traffic congestion, published in December, suggested the typical speed during a Monday morning journey down Des Voeux Road West may be slower than 10km/h - not much faster than walking.

London's bicycle policy has been introduced to reduce the cost of congestion, estimated at the equivalent of HK$65 million in 2013, and ease pollution. As impressive as it sounds, though, London still lags some of its European neighbours: a quarter of all trips in the Netherlands are made by bicycle while in Copenhagen, Denmark, 50 per cent of people cycle to work each day. Bicycles outsell new cars in almost every European city.

New York is a bustling metropolis of 8.5 million people crammed into 790 sq km (compared with Hong Kong's seven million living in 1,104 sq km) and it's enjoying record levels of commuter cycling. The Big Apple's Citi Bike bicycle-sharing scheme, whereby riders can pick up a machine at one station and drop it at another, has been a raging success. And the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway - just one of the city's many bike paths - extends for 51km.

Closer to home, in March, Taiwan's YouBike sharing service logged a remarkable 40 million trips since 2008. Taipei alone processed 22 million rentals last year, double the number for the previous year. It's one of the best bike-sharing schemes in Asia, but not the only one; the mainland, Japan, India, Thailand, even Kazakhstan, all have them. While Singapore is yet to implement its own, plans are under way following a recent change in transport policy, which now views cycling as an alternative mode of transport rather than a form of recreation.

To be fair, Hong Kong has flirted with bike sharing since April last year - albeit over a tiny 1.8km section of a closed road in the West Kowloon Cultural District. A more significant bike-sharing system for Sha Tin has been proposed by councillor Gary Yeung Man-yui, but has yet to be approved.

Furthermore, if you happen to commute between Tai Po and Sha Tin, the 16km Tolo Harbour cycling track is an attractive stretch. But, of course, most of Hong Kong's workforce are not in a position to benefit from that.

Study after study shows cycling commuters are happier than their driving counterparts - the cost savings alone should be enough to put a smile on one's face. Cyclists are also healthier, and their carbon footprint is smaller.

"There's a great joy in powering your own movement on a beautifully designed machine, partaking in the dynamic choreography of city traffic, all the while taking in the endlessly fascinating sights and sounds of the city," says rider Christine Ho, a librarian in her mid-30s. "When it comes to transport, nothing beats it."

Ho is not yet an everyday commuter-cyclist, but she'd like to be. Living on Lamma Island and working in Kowloon, being able to cycle from her home to the ferry then from the ferry to her place of work would be ideal.

"But the Star Ferry prohibits the carriage of bikes, so it adds 40 minutes to my commute," she says, explaining that if she wishes to cycle at the city end of her journey, she must ride from the Lamma ferry pier in Central to Wan Chai pier, then cross the harbour from there.

"I only ride to work every couple of weeks, but where I'm cycling on the city streets, the time it takes me to ride my bike is actually the same as it [would be] on a bus."

The Harbourfront Cycleway group is familiar with the situation. Members have been lobbying for a cycleway on Hong Kong Island, skirting the northern coastline and spanning 16km from Kennedy Town in the west to Heng Fa Chuen in the east, for almost 10 years. They estimate the journey to the Central ferry piers from Wan Chai would be, on such a track, a gentle five minutes, and a mere 10 minutes from Kennedy Town - significantly faster than the trip would take on a bus or in a private car or taxi.

The group of enthusiasts - among them engineers, landscape architects and planners - has delivered a detailed, 86-page presentation to the government showing how the path could be created. Existing impediments were considered and resolved: a boardwalk under the Island Eastern Corridor, in North Point, where buildings have been built up to the water; the extension and revamp of underused pedestrian paths; multi-purpose facelifts for quiet roads; and, where safe riding would be impossible, the erection of dismount signs.

"The cycleway proposal has been welcomed by the public, the Harbourfront Commission and society," says Turner, who is part of the group. "But it has still not been adopted or even welcomed by the mishmash of departments shoehorning the development of our precious harbour."

Hong Kong's labyrinthine system of governance is a frustration for many of the city's cyclists.

"Support and understanding of the role of cycling in the city is fragmented across departments, with their own priorities and responsibilities," says Ho.

All queries about the issue are referred to the Transport Department, which may work with any combination of the Development Bureau, the Transport and Housing Bureau, the Highways Department, the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, the Police and the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (in relation to cycling trails in country parks) on policy decisions involving the bicycle.

"The government here has two jobs: one is to run the city and the other is to figure out how they run themselves," says Pok Fu Lam district councillor Paul Zimmerman. "That's sucked a lot of energy out of the top layer of government - things that Boris [Johnson] or [Michael] Bloomberg [the former mayor of New York] didn't have to deal with."

Zimmerman, a Dutchman, has witnessed in his homeland how the bicycle can change cities for the better. But, he says, "Hong Kong is a good 30 years behind in terms of street design: we have a transport design manual from the United Kingdom in the 1980s … the latest updates have been changing commas - not real reviews."

Zimmerman relates a recent experience he had in trying to push through the adaptation of a New Territories intersection: "Add a cyclist to a busy junction and the guys in the Transport Department just don't know how to handle it."

While the government's cycling policy may be out of step, it is not entirely ill-informed. In 2004, the Transport Department commissioned a comprehensive study of international bike policy, which concluded: "… there are obstacles to adopting such a course of action in Hong Kong."

The region is topographically challenging, it argued. Based on "gradients of about 5 per cent or less being appropriate for cycling", only 27 per cent of Hong Kong was deemed suitable for bicycles, although it's worth pointing out that this was a consideration of the territory as a whole, and not just the main urban areas, which are relatively flat.

The city's cyclists are "generally poorly trained and have poor riding habits. Many appear to have no understanding of what it is like to drive a vehicle … Similarly, vehicle drivers in Hong Kong have little regard for the needs of cyclists", the report continued.

Public transport accounts for about 90 per cent of daily journeys in the city, the writers of the report reasoned, and it is cheap.

Of grave concern for them was the issue of safety. For example, there was a 44 per cent increase in cycling accidents from 2009 to 2012, although a rise of only 6 per cent was seen between 2012 and last year.

With 97 per cent of all of the SAR's commuter cycling trips in 2004 having taken place off Hong Kong Island, that's where efforts towards promoting cycling have been channelled. The Development Bureau is working on a cycling track from Ma On Shan to Tuen Mun while the Transport Department has commissioned studies into the upgrade of existing cycling tracks in the New Territories.

The message seems to be that cycling in the heart of the city simply is not safe. But there are some who beg to differ.

WILLIAM HOPKIN IS OUT of bed by 6am. After kissing his wife goodbye and embracing his two children, he cycles the short journey to the Mui Wo ferry pier, on Lantau Island, where he leaves his ride.

Arriving in Central 40 minutes later, he collects his city bike from wherever he has been able to chain it up. He then cycles to Quarry Bay, where he works as an engineer. The most direct route would cross roads on which bicycles have been banned, making his journey all the more tortuous.

On arrival at Taikoo Place, he is able to park his bicycle safely - but only because his is one of the few buildings in the city that adheres to LEED energy-rating standards, under which points are awarded for the provision of bike-parking facilities. (That is not the case under Hong Kong's equivalent scheme, BEAM). However, before he starts work, he must visit a nearby gym, for a shower.

At 6.30pm he does the journey in reverse.

Why does Hopkin, 30, persist with cycling in a city not designed for the purpose?

"Because after all of that, I feel great," he beams. And the journey is as fast as, if not faster than, it would be on public transport. The 7.5km from Central to Quarry Bay takes him 15 minutes in the morning, about the same time as it would on a bus; and, in peak evening traffic, on the way back, 20 minutes, half the time he would otherwise spend sitting in a jam. "As a bonus, I get 35 minutes of exercise every day without even thinking about it.

"Everyone else in the world is trying to encourage the uptake of cycling, Hong Kong is the only place trying to ban it," he says, admitting this came as a shock when he moved from London, in 2009. "Every problem you throw at cycling in the city can be overcome; there's no need to ban cycling, and it doesn't make sense not to encourage it."

Many are not as brave as Hopkin, but cycling is gaining momentum here - across all age groups and demographics.

"I've seen substantial growth [in the number] of road cyclists in Hong Kong since 2003," says 54-year-old retiree Anita Lo Lau Shuk-hi.

She's one of the newer members of the Hong Kong Cycling Alliance and rides every day, to get from A to B, and for exercise and leisure. She sticks to riding in the New Territories, although she's a fiery advocate of cycling throughout the city.

While there are no official numbers, since 2012, when rider Sarah Lee Wai-sze returned home from London with an Olympic bronze medal in the women's keirin, bicycle shops have proliferated across the city. And with heart-throb Eddie Peng Yu-yen about to be seen in Lycra, cycling through the streets of Hong Kong, in director Dante Lam Chiu-yin's latest film, To The Fore, it's expected that interest in the activity will continue.

DISCOURAGED FROM BEING commuter cyclists, scores of riders descend Repulse Bay Road, into the south side of the island, every weekend, on their way to Shek O for a morning coffee. The battle between cars and cyclists begins early, and it bothers Southern District councillor Chu Lap-wai.

"The roads are too narrow. The traffic is very slow, and once I saw a driver with very bad driving manners," Chu says.

Concerned, he alerted fellow councillors, who raised the issue of cycling safety with the Southern District Council's Traffic and Transport Committee in February.

They suggested restricting the access of cyclists to narrow, winding thoroughfares such as Tai Tam, Repulse Bay and Shek O roads.

Outraged cyclists took to social media.

"If they're considering banning cycling there, it won't be long until they consider banning it everywhere," wrote one.

Chu claims the effect was unintended.

"I would actually prefer for more to be done in the south [of the island] for the city's leisure cyclists and ensure greater safety standards; one cyclist was killed last year and six were seriously injured on our roads.

"I support the idea of cycling; if the government can give me the budget and policy, I will support it, but in reality there are many problems. I think cycling is not safe here - Hong Kong roads are not suitable for cycling."

Bo Kratz disagrees.

"A good place to cycle would offer variation, stunning scenery, a long season, convenience and safety," says the founder of the South Island Road (SIR) cycling club, an informal association of amateur cyclists. "Hong Kong gets full marks on the first four, and a pass on the fifth."

Taking matters into their own hands, "We typically ride early, when most people are still asleep," says Kratz, 52. "Like it or not, there is a culturally driven pecking order on the road, which is not entirely compatible with the legal framework. If you think you have the same rights on the road as the driver of that large Mercedes you just cursed, you are in the minority."

"Any normal road user maintains their safety by controlling his speed, location and concentration," says Turner. "[Cycling is] not dangerous in any absolute sense - one just has to manage the dangers that exist, the same as when in any vehicle, or even when crossing the road."

Adds Ho: "If any road user - whether it's me on my bicycle or the person behind the wheel of their car or truck - makes a bad judgment that results in a collision, I am going to be at higher risk of injury or even death. Do I feel safe when I ride? I feel that the rewards of cycling outweigh the risks and that I have the interest and skills to manage the risks - on most days. I think [commuter] cycling in Hong Kong has the potential to be safe, pleasurable and effective. The built-up urban areas are flat, dense and well connected by transit [to the beginning or end of bike-friendly connections] - all ingredients that make cycling amenable.

"Despite the hostile streets, people are cycling. Ordinary people are taking their bikes to work. Parents and schools are teaching children how to ride. People are cycling because it's faster, easier and more pleasurable. But [to achieve a more bike-friendly city] it's going to take a critical mass of people on their bikes - not just the risk-takers, but ordinary people of all ages, genders and jobs - and people supporting cycling whether or not they do it."

"Cycling is already here," agrees Zimmerman. "So the real question is - how do you grow cycling safely?

"You start by growing it safely in the New Territories, in Sha Tin, on Lantau, on Lamma; develop understanding and awareness of what a cyclist is and how they behave; developing proper signage and markings. Hong Kong Island is not a priority."

Turner shakes his head. "That's a political response; it's easier politically to get movement up north. But Hong Kong is not impossible.

"Urban areas are especially well-suited to cycling - that's where the congestion is and that's where we need it most."

Kelvin Kwan Kar-man, a 38-year-old commuter cyclist, says, "There is a need to improve safety … in Hong Kong; from proper learning about how to cycle on the road and traffic rules and conditions to early education upon taking driving or motorcycle lessons. And, finally, the improvement of road conditions."

"A bit of paint and non-slip surfacing" would be a start, says Hopkin. "If the answer to cycling provision is seen as segregated paths or nothing, then Hong Kong Island is a bit difficult because some of the streets are quite narrow; although even in cramped areas like Kennedy Town they somehow manage to get in three traffic lanes and tiny pavements, where a city like London or New York would likely make do with only one or two. However, there are other ways to provide a better and safer cycling environment. The most obvious is the UK's advanced stop lines at traffic lights, which the Transport Department has so far refused to countenance.

"A painted, non-segregated lane on the road is better than nothing. Again, only a bit of paint and, again, flat refusal from the Transport Department," says Hopkin, who also floats the idea of lowering the speed limit in urban areas to 30km/h, which would have "massive benefits for people walking as well as people cycling".

"More radical solutions [include] the introduction of shared space. Take the pedestrianisation of Des Voeux Road, it's likely if that went ahead cycling would be banned there - but why? There's plenty of room to coexist. I often feel that a shared space de facto exists in the narrow streets of Sheung Wan, which lack the otherwise ubiquitous godawful railings, but occasionally a bolshy taxi driver reminds me that the status quo there is rather fragile.

"The MTR is essential and it's great that we're allowed, despite the wheel-off rule [which requires a wheel to be removed from a bicycle before boarding]. The increasing acceptance of folded bikes on buses [albeit bagged] is a good sign; and external bike racks on buses would be fantastic and a low-cost solution."

Says Lo: "On traffic junctions, set up a waiting box for cyclists, and relocating bus stops away from the cycle track will also prevent accidents." Secured parking within easy reach to "ease the minds of many about their vehicles being stolen or confiscated" would be welcome, she says, as would bike-sharing facilities.

No matter the approach, "you need someone with passion, who will be committed to it, who will see through the difficulty of implementing it - because it's hard work changing people's heads", says Zimmerman.

"If you go into the Transport Department or the Transport and Housing Bureau, I think you'll have a very hard time finding somebody who's regularly on a bicycle."

THE INTRODUCTION OF THE automobile polarised cities: the haves opted for the car while the have-nots remained on bicycles until mechanised transport became the norm. Today's revolution, Smethurst points out, "is driven as much by the new middle classes, as well as the environmentally aware, young and old, making a stand against pollution and the surrender of the city to outmoded modernist ideals dominated by highways and regimented pedestrian routes".

Perhaps it will not take any one person or policy to push Hong Kong into the next century of cycling, but the will of the people as they embrace pedal power.