Hong Kong’s secret, illegal e-bikers crying out for power to the people

E-bikes are cheap, quiet, environmentally friendly, take up much less space than cars and are used all over China – so why are they outlawed on Hong Kong roads?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 July, 2016, 12:28pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 July, 2016, 6:22pm

Rush hour in Fuzhou, capital of Fujian province and home to 6.6 million people, seems unusually quiet. It’s not the density of traffic on the roads that is remarkable, but the lack of noise.

It’s almost completely silent because most commuters in Fuzhou, like an estimated 200 million others across China, opt for electric bikes – and it’s easy to see why. These two-wheeled vehicles, which range from electrically assisted bicycles to what appear to be silent conventional motor scooters, seem to offer the perfect solution for urban transport. E-bikes are cheap, quiet, have zero emissions and take up much less space than cars. Batteries can be conveniently charged overnight at home and they have inspired a successful Chinese industry which supplies customers all over China and the rest of the world.

“I love it. It’s the best thing about my life in Shenzhen,” says Audrey Tournier, a French entrepreneur who runs her own organic beauty products company in the city, as she parks her elegant white electric scooter outside a coffee shop in Shekou. She says she bought it about a year ago for 3,800 yuan (HK4,400) and uses it all the time with no problems.

She is just one of an estimated 39 million people who purchased e-bikes in China last year; according to Ma Zhongchao, of the China Bicycle Association, electric bikes have become the most widely used means of transport in parallel with the nation’s rapid urbanisation. And it’s not just China where these environmentally friendly two-wheelers are proving popular. The EU’s 28 member states imported 551,782 e-bikes in 2012, mostly from China, and the numbers are on the rise. That’s a lot of people not in cars and buses spewing out CO2. Even safety-conscious Singapore has embraced the e-bike albeit with a raft of sensible regulations and control measures.

Despite their meteoric rise on the world’s urban transport agenda, it is very difficult to spot an e-bike in Hong Kong. Despite the widely reported problems of traffic congestion and air pollution facing the city, riding any sort of e-bike on the roads of Hong Kong is strictly illegal. Offenders face a fine and maximum penalty of three months imprisonment.

Many advocates of the e-bike in Hong Kong are furious that citizens can double-park fume-belching vans and trucks on double yellow lines in Central district with apparent impunity but if someone is apprehended riding at 20km/h on an environmentally friendly, battery-assisted bicycle, they could end up behind bars.

The law in Hong Kong has unique and exquisitely bureaucratic logic for excluding their citizens from the health and social benefits of e-bikes. Here, all e-bikes are classified as motorbikes (which they clearly are not) but because they do not precisely conform to the same exacting safety standards as petrol driven motorbikes, they are forbidden on Hong Kong roads.

Secretary for Transport and Housing Anthony Cheung Bing-leung last addressed the issue in the Legislative Council in 2013.

“Bicycles equipped with electric motors are not normally designed to the same safety and performance standards as conventional motorcycles. They are normally not considered roadworthy and would not be registered and licensed. Therefore, the Government currently has no plan to allow the use of electric bicycles on roads of Hong Kong,” he responded to a question about the perils of e-bikes. Nothing has changed since, much to the frustration of Hong Kong’s small community of secret e-bikers.

“Let’s be clear; the only reason e-bikes are illegal in Hong Kong is that the Transport Department has failed to keep up with the rest of the world and failed in its regulatory duties,” says retired Hong Kong businessman Peter Forsythe. He felt so strongly about the benefits of e-bikes he submitted his own policy proposal paper to the transport department in 2008. He is still waiting for their reply.

Forsythe loved riding his e-bike near his home in Discovery Bay until a neighbour told him it was illegal. When he looked into the law he thought it was so ridiculous he tried to get himself arrested so he could raise the profile of the issue via local media.

Let’s be clear; the only reason e-bikes are illegal in Hong Kong is that the Transport Department has failed to keep up with the rest of the world and failed in its regulatory duties
Peter Forsythe

“Unfortunately, Discovery Bay is a very safe place and we don’t see that many police,” he explains, and recounts how he waited for days to find a police patrol and then defiantly rode past them on his e-bike bracing himself for instant arrest.

“They just ignored me,” he says. Eventually Forsythe ditched his e-bike.

A few covert e-bikers remain as a reluctant and unlikely criminal underclass located mostly on the outlying islands. One of them who risks having his bike confiscated or being arrested on a daily basis is Graham West (not real name), who uses his to transport shopping up the steep hill to his home. West converted a conventional bicycle with a professional e-bike kit and you have to look twice to realise it’s an e-bike at all. Its top speed of about 25km/h, is actually slower on the flat than most conventional bikes.

“There is a distinctive difference between the concept of an electrically assisted bike, and a electric bike,” says West and explains that the former type means that the rider must be at least attempting to pedal the bike in order to gain assistance from the electric motor. These are sometimes called “pedelecs”, which usually include additional safety features such as motor cut-out switches when the brakes are applied, and speed restrictions. These low power and speed-restricted pedelecs are the sort of e-bike permitted and encouraged in Europe, Singapore and elsewhere. It can be a healthy option too, because the more sophisticated models allow the rider to select the amount of electric assistance they require.

West also thinks that by avoiding the issue and not properly regulating and licensing e-bikes, the Transport Department is making matters worse by encouraging people to manufacture their own home-made contraptions with massive battery packs and unlicensed parts, capable of causing real injury.

“There are tricycles whizzing around with three or four 12-volt car batteries hidden under the seat to give the required power. The weight of that and a passenger on the trike with a rusty old single brake is a disaster waiting to happen,” says West.

Disservice to the people: the problem with China’s e-tailing taxes and bans on electric bikes

The licensing and safety issue is also causing headaches in China where there have been recent reports of a blanket e-bike ban but the reality is more complicated and varies from city to city. As the numbers continue to grow, China is desperately trying to introduce regulation and licensing of e-bikes in retrospect, which is proving a challenge. E-bikes of every size, shape and specification are already a fixed part of the urban transport scene and an important part of the courier and delivery industry.

In Fuzhou, e-bike riders might elect to be pedestrians, cyclists or motorcyclists depending on traffic conditions and the colour of traffic lights. It’s not uncommon to be overtaken on a pedestrian crossing by a huge electric motor scooter travelling at speed. You can’t hear it coming because it is silent. It’s an obvious safety concern.

In Shenzhen, a crackdown in April this year saw the impounding of nearly 18,000 illegal e-bikes after statistics showed that 114 people were killed in e-bike-related accidents in 2015, accounting for 26.45 per cent of the total fatalities. In the first quarter of 2016, 27 people were killed in e-bike-related accidents, about one-quarter of the total traffic accident deaths there, but many think it’s speed that causes road fatalities and the problem is not electric bikes but policing and regulation.

According to the Shenzhen Daily, a regulation issued by local authorities in 2013 means e-bikes with top speeds above 20km/h, with engines above 240w or weighing above 40 kg are treated as illegal e-bikes.

Chinese riders go green with electric bikes, but also live dangerously

While China grapples with the mass proliferation of e-bikes and other nations introduce sensible regulations based largely on the Chinese experience, Hong Kong continues to bury its head in the sand. Many, like Martin Turner of the Hong Kong Cycling Alliance, believe there is a place for properly regulated e-bikes in the city.

Electric bikes fulfil a need and serve society, as part of the more people-focused development that Hong Kong so desperately needs
Martin Turner

“Electric bikes fulfil a need and serve society, as part of the more people-focused development that Hong Kong so desperately needs, “ he says, adding that he would like to see a change to the current situation where roads and motor traffic always take precedence over individual mobility.

“Legalising and policing is the answer,” says West. Forsythe agrees, suggesting that the low-power, and speed-regulated electrically assisted pedelecs, of the type commonly used elsewhere, should simply be reclassified as bicycles, bringing them within the existing law.

He suggested this to the Transport Department eight years ago, so nobody should be holding their breath while waiting for Hong Kong’s own clean and silent rush hour.