Hong Kong through the Looking Glass: A Series on Sustainable Planet, People, and Prosperity
We 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?
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 (pg. 36), 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 percent of cars using the road exceeded the speed limit. After the lane, the proportion of speeders dropped to 20 percent. Automobile crashes decreased 16 percent and crashes with injuries decreased 63 percent. Total injuries to all street users (drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians) decreased 21 percent. Also the percent of cyclists riding on the sidewalk dropped from 46 percent to 3 percent.
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 between 1997 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.”
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 percent) total vehicle traffic increased by 12 percent 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.
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.