A Series on Sustainable Planet, People + Prosperity

 

[W]e never became a bicycle-riding community of the sort found in . . . less prosperous Asian cities.
        
Denis Bray, first Hong Kong Commissioner of Transport, Hong Kong Metamorphosis

 

 Hong Kong’s steep hills might have had more to do with its historical lack of cycling than anything else. But Mr. Bray’s connecting bicycle-riding with lack of prosperity may shed light on Hong Kong’s current leaders’ dismissal of bicycling as just recreation, not transportation. Perhaps they consider riding a bike to work or shopping as only what poor people in poor countries do because of necessity. And thus something to be avoided rather than facilitated. That’s unfortunate.  In the context of the 1960’s that Mr. Bray is commenting about, that attitude probably made sense.  But in today’s world, many affluent urban areas, including those with challenging topography, are encouraging bicycle transportation, not shunning it.

Previous posts have described how Hong Kong and Singapore try to reduce traffic congestion, control automobile population, and require drivers to pay for pollution, to achieve the goals of improving air standards, urban quality of life, and public health. This two-part series will look at a much more direct way to accomplish those goals – create transportation options based on bicycles, not motorized vehicles. This post explores why cities encourage and support cycling as an important component of their transportation network. My next post will look at the bicycle infrastructure of various urban areas and how the Hong Kong government’s attitudes and actions compare.

 

 Why Facilitate Urban Commuter Cycling?

You can go almost 140 kilometers by bike before you generate 1 kg of CO2 emissions.  In a car it's only about 2 km.  (source: transitionscilly.org.uk)

You can go almost 140 kilometers by bike before you generate one kilogram of CO2 emissions. That’s much better than other forms of transportation. (source: transitionscilly.org.uk)

Traveling more by bike and less by motorized vehicles improves air and water quality and public health.

Almost everyone is aware of the toxic air pollution and CO2 emissions generated by fossil fuel-powered vehicles and also know that traveling by bike creates no air pollution. But people may not be aware of the magnitude of pollution reduction that is possible when cycling becomes even a small fraction of an area’s transportation mix. The California Air Resources Board estimates that substituting bicycles for just 1% more of California’s 2010 car and pickup truck trips would have resulted in an annual reduction of 2.6 million pounds (1.2 million kilograms) of reactive organic gasses and nitrogen oxide, 475,000 pounds (215,000 kilograms) of PM10 particulate pollution, and 14.7 million pounds (6.7 million kilograms) of carbon monoxide. Riding a bike for short trips, those under five miles, rather than driving, is especially beneficial because cold engines pollute more.

Not as widely recognized is that vehicular traffic also pollutes the water. Storm water runoff from roads typically flows directly to waterways. Besides conveying oil and other leaked automotive fluids as well as rubber and metal particles from tire and brake wear, street runoff also carries a variety of additional toxic substances. According to the Stormwater Effects Handbook (p36), sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, precipitates from the exhaust of internal combustion vehicles are a source of many of these toxins. “. . . [T]he most commonly detected toxic organic compounds found in urban runoff are mostly from fossil fuel combustion.”

Obviously, cleaner air and water are beneficial to public health. Additionally the aerobic exercise that bicycling provides significantly improves personal health. To cite just one example, a Danish study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Internal Medicine, concluded that in Denmark during the period of the study “Even after adjusting for other risk factors . . . those who did not cycle to work experienced a 39% higher mortality rate than those who did.”

More bikes on roads can make streets safer for everyone.

This may seem counterintuitive, but it’s what the data show. In New York City, completion of the Prospect Park West Bicycle Lane in 2010 dramatically increased safety. The project involved converting one of three existing vehicle lanes of the Prospect Park West roadway to a two-way bicycle lane. Before the lane was installed 74% of cars using the road exceeded the speed limit. After the lane, the proportion of speeders dropped to 20%. Automobile crashes decreased 16% and crashes with injuries decreased 63%. Total injuries to all street users (drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians) decreased 21%. Also the percent of cyclists riding on the sidewalk dropped from 46% to 3%.

Even though bicycle trips increased dramatically, the number of accidents stayed about the same.  So the accident rate dropped 76%

Even though bicycle trips increased dramatically, the number of accidents stayed about the same. So the accident rate dropped 76% (source: Texas Transporation Institute)

Data presented by Texas A&M University’s Texas Transportation Institute show that while bicycle traffic on four Portland, Oregon, U.S.A. roadway bridges increased almost 500% between 1991 and 2007, the rate of bicycle crashes on the bridges decreased 76% and the number of bicycle fatalities dropped from 1.92 to 1.13 deaths per every million trips.

The New York and Portland outcomes are consistent with the findings of Evidence on Why Bike-Friendly Cities are Safer for All Road Users published by researchers from the University of Colorado at Denver and the University of Connecticut. That study looked at road accident data from 24 U.S. California cities between1997 and 2007 and concluded that “improving the streets and street networks to better accommodate bicycles may in fact lead to a self-reinforcing cycle that can help enhance overall safety for all road users.”

The Prospect Park West Bicycle Lane made the road safer for all users. (source: Google Maps)

The Prospect Park West Bicycle Lane made the road safer for all users. (source: Google Maps)

Existing roads can move more people when bikes are added to the traffic mix.

Prior to completion of the Prospect Park West Bicycle Lane, approximately 350 bicyclists traveled along that section of street on a typical weekday. After completion, weekday bicycle trips increased to more than 1,000 per day. Automobile traffic volume and travel time remained essentially constant. This coupled with the increase in bicycle traffic meant that the roadway’s people-moving performance actually improved even though motor vehicle lanes were reduced by a third. During morning and evening rush hours, the road now handles 13% and 9% more commuters respectively than it did before the bike lane was implemented.

For the Portland bridges mentioned earlier, a City of Portland Bureau of Transportation study found that from 1991 to 2008 although automobile traffic on the bridges decreased marginally (0.2%) total vehicle traffic increased by 12% due to growth in bicycle commuting.

Cycling and cycling improvements increase cities’ and individuals’ prosperity.

It takes much less investment for cities to increase the number of bicycle commuters than it does to increase the number of public transit or driving commuters. The Portland study reported the increase in bike, transit, and car commuter trips between 1990 and 2008 and the amount of money spent on transportation improvements for each of those modes during approximately the same period. Based on the rate of additional trips per dollar spent, active transportation (bicycle and pedestrian) spending is approximately 11 times more cost effective than roadway spending and 16 times better than transit spending.

The additional 12% traffic volume on Portland’s bridges caused by bicycles could be accommodated by the bridge roadways and existing approach streets without apparent increased congestion. If the greater commuter volume had been due to greater automobile traffic, overcrowding of the bridges and surrounding approach roads would likely have compelled an expensive widening.

Public transit in Hong Kong is ubiquitous and economical.  But not as economical as cycling.

Public transit in Hong Kong is ubiquitous and economical. But not as economical as cycling.

For individuals, the cost savings of traveling by bike rather than car or public transportation are significant. For cities, money not spent by individuals on fossil fuels can be spent on goods and services that are less costly to the environment and more beneficial to the local economy. According to the American Automobile Association’s 2014 Your Driving Costs study, the annual cost to operate the average new car in U.S. is on the order of US$9,000 (HK$ 69,800) per year. In Hong Kong it probably is higher. Cost is one reason my spouse and I don’t own a car in HK, but even so in 2014 we spent about US$2,700 (HK$21,000) for the MTR, buses, trams, ferries, and taxis. For many couples public transit costs are probably more. Our costs may be lower than average. We minimize taxi use and have almost no work commuting or grocery shopping trip expenses, since I work from home, my spouse typically rides an employer-provided shuttle bus to her office, and we walk to the grocery store. Compared to US$9,000 or US$2,700 dollars per year, the potential savings from bike transportation are obvious. Even taking into account second-order effects like the money-value of time, the cost benefits of biking still remain. Because depending on traffic congestion and trip length, door-to-door time for biking can often be faster, as fast, or almost as fast as driving or public transit.

Due to the benefits described above and others, many urban areas are working hard to improve their bicycling infrastructures for commuting. What are they doing, and why isn’t the Hong Kong government equally enthusiastic about cycling transportation? We’ll explore those questions in my next post.

 

 

Dante Archangeli moved to Hong Kong from Tucson, Arizona, where he focused on sustainable development and green housing. He is an MIT and USC educated researcher, writer, entrepreneur, builder, and project manager.

All images by Dante Archangeli except where noted.

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9 Responses

  1. Janet Rankin

    Very nice article about important topic, Dante. Pittsburgh (your home town!) and Washington DC are examples of large US cities that have made substantial changes to increase use of active transportation (especially biking). According to the latest American Commuter Survey, there has been an almost 300% increase in cycle commuters in Washington DC from 2000 to 2013. Pittsburgh had a whopping 409% increase! I heard the mayor of Pittsburgh last year state that he has made this a priority for Pittsburgh since he knows that they cannot attract the best and brightest workers without making change– people are looking for bikable/walkable neighborhoods. This is an area of great interest to me since I spearheaded a new initiative, ActivEarth, for my professional organization on the very topic you describe. see: http://www.activearth.org/ In my opinion, this solution requires some minimum infrastructure to make walking and biking safer but also a change in attitude– you CAN walk or bike to your short-trip destination. Progress has been made in moving the US towards “healthy transportation” but we have a long way to go…. Thank you for addressing this issue for Hong Kong.

    • Dante Archangeli

      Hi Janet. So far I’ve only addressed the issue of bike transportation in Hong Kong by writing about it. There are many others here who are working much harder on it, as you are in the U.S. So the thanks should go to you and them. Thank you also for your very informative comment. In terms of geography, there are a surprising number of similarities between Hong Kong and Pittsburgh. They both are defined by steep hills rising from the water. However Pittsburgh’s hills are steeper. The grades of Pittsburgh’s Duquesne and Monongahela inclines are 58 degrees and 78 degrees respectively. The grade of Hong Kong’s Peak tram is only 48 degrees. It seems that if bike transportation can be successful in Pittsburgh (with its snowy and icy winters and hot and humid summers) then it should be able to be successful in Hong Kong.

      • Nick Andrew

        Some of us at Hong Kong Cycling Alliance have looked at the geography of Hong Kong and estimate that 90% of the population live in the flatter areas, between sea level and +50m Above Sea level in our definition. Driver Education is very lacking in Hong Kong with regards to how drivers should behave around cyclists, with Government attitudes dictated from the top, significant changes could take place very quickly with the right people making the right decisions. Despite what people might say cycling in Hong Kong is fast and convenient in such a dense city.

  2. Dante Archangeli

    Nick, thanks very much for your comment and for being part of HKCA. Given what you write about HK’s population distribution, it seems like a continuous biking/walking promenade along the shore from Chai Wan to Central to Aberdeen could move a lot of Hong Kong Island’s 1.3 million people by active transportation. It would be wonderful for Hong Kongers and visitors both. Lots of bits and pieces of shoreside promenade already exist. It would be great to link them up!

  3. Nick Andrew

    A continuous cycleway from chai wan to Aberdeen would bring the ideal form of connectivity to the waterfront areas offering environmentally friendly stop-go transport where currently people can only access from the MTR and need to return to the MTR to move along the waterfront any significant distance. It would also offer a new tourist attraction, opening up areas of Hong Kong that currently might not currently be visited. The http://harbourfrontcycleway.hk website that we at the HKCAll have proposed has the planned route already detailed, and is being promoted by the Harbourfront Commission/Harbourfront Authority.

    • Dante Archangeli

      Thanks very much for the link to HKCAll’s proposal. I’m embarrassed that I hadn’t known about it before. It’s such a good common-sense idea. With HK’s “unexpected” HK$60 billion budget surplus, it seems like there should be a little money available now to improve the city’s livability. Does HKCAll suggest specific actions that people can take to support the Harbourfront Cycleway?

    • Dante Archangeli

      Thanks very much for the links. Vancouver – hills and rain. Again, it seems that if bike transportation can be successful and supported by the government there, then the same should be possible in Hong Kong.

  4. Rich

    Ebikes negate any issue regarding hills or hot climates. The type of ebike which is a bicycle (can easily be pedaled without motor) with motor built in. You can easily use less total energy than a pure cyclist who must shower, eat, wash clothes more often. For this reason, I estimate that a pure bicycle is ideal for trips up to 2-4 flat miles, and ebike really pulls ahead with trips over 7 miles, or with hills or heat. You decide when to work/sweat/get a workout.

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