Hong Kong through the Looking Glass: A Series on Sustainable Planet, People, and Prosperity
Hong Kong packs lots of stuff into small places. Peng Chau is a hair under one square kilometer in area, but over 6,000 people live and work there. Its single town is served by several dozen ferries a days, as well as a number of shops, restaurants, bakeries, temples, and shrines. It even has at least one church, that invited us in when we visited the community on a Sunday near the end of Chinese New Year. But going to church couldn’t compete with the two lion-dance troupes that held our attention. Even with the area’s high population density, there are more secluded beaches and walks in the woods than one can easily visit in half a day of strolling the trails that crisscross its two main hills. But what feels most prevalent is bikes. And the air seems cleaner than in other parts of Hong Kong.
Peng Chau is one of 263 islands that make up Hong Kong. Only a small percentage of those islands accommodate fossil-fuel-powered vehicles. Not surprisingly, where private cars aren’t possible, on Peng Chau for instance, the dominate forms of transportation are walking and bicycling. So even though the Hong Kong government pooh-poohs bicycle transportation, there are areas of Hong Kong where it’s widely used. Maybe car-dependent localities the world over that are experiencing brain-drain can learn quality-of-life lessons from Peng Chau and other communities where bicycles are an important transportation component.
Because Hong Kong is becoming more integrated into China, it is becoming less differentiated from other Chinese cities by governance, culture, and prosperity. Like many cities in the U.S. that are being impacted by structural economic change, in order to attract and retain increasingly mobile residents Hong Kong will need to find new ways to make itself a desirable place to live. Hong Kong, and other urban areas, may want to do as cities like New York, London, and Singapore have done–facilitate bicycles as an important non-polluting component of sustainable quality-of-life-enhancing transportation networks.
My previous post looked at the benefits of bicycle transportation to cities and individuals, both cyclists and non-cyclists. This post will compare what Hong Kong and other cities are doing to facilitate bicycle transportation. The comparison charts show some common quantitative metrics. The discussions of specific cities that follow highlight government attitudes and spotlight successful efforts and ambitious future plans.
Vancouver, NYC, Chicago, Tucson, Washington, Pittsburgh, Singapore, and London
The City of Vancouver asserts in its Cycling in Vancouver web page, “Expanding the bike route network is an important strategy in our effort to reduce traffic congestion to become more sustainable.” In New York, every parking garage or lot that accommodates 100 or more cars must also provide bicycle parking spaces with locks equal in number to at least 10 percent of the car spaces. Chicago’s bike-share system is anticipated to grow from 3,000 to 4,000 bikes by the end of 2015. As set forth in its Chicago Streets for Cycling Plan 2020, Chicago also intends to expand its existing 364 kilometers of on-street bike lanes and off-street paths to a 1,038 kilometer network by 2020. Tucson, Arizona already has more than that, 1,376 kilometers.
According to the Where We Ride: Analysis of bicycle commuting in American cities, Washington, DC and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania had the fastest growth in bike commuting in the U.S. between 1990 and 2013, 499 percent and 440 percent, respectively. 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.
Hong Kong and Singapore vie for the leading-city crown of Southeast Asia and the Singapore government is very supportive of cycling. Singapore’s National Development Minister, Khaw Boon Wan, in his blog Housing Matters writes “We must now go beyond cycling for recreation. We want it to be a viable transport option for short trips….” The SG Government’s Center for Liveable Cities conducted a collaborative research study with the U.S. Urban Land Institute (ULI) to formulate principles for improving the nation’s walkability and bikeability. The study’s findings were published in March 2014 as the ULI publication, Creating Healthy Places Through Active Mobility. Under its National Cycling Plan (NCP), Singapore is about to complete 66 km of intra-town cycling paths that connect residential centers with transportation hubs, shopping, and schools and has a total of 190 km planned.
The intra-town cycling paths are in addition to, and integrate with, Singapore’s Park Connector Network which contains more 210 km of pedestrian / bicycle paths that link Singapore National Parks to each other and the MRT, Singapore’s excellent nationwide subway system. The NCP envisions a 700 km cycling network within 15 years with intra-town cycling paths in all 26 of Singapore’s Housing Development Board public housing mixed-use towns which range in population from 60,000 to 250,000 and contain approximately 3,000,000 residents, roughly 56 percent of the nation’s total population of 5,399,000.
Extensive bike parking racks are provided at transportation hubs. But unlike most U.S. and European cities, which make provisions for standard bicycles on public buses and subways, only foldable bicycles that are closed are allowed on Singapore’s MRT and buses and only during non-rush hours. And buses will not carry more than one bike at a time.
But the preceding cities’ bicycle transportation plans pale when compare to those of London. According to the 2013 The Mayor’s Vision for Cycling in London, over ten years London will spend $1.4 billion U.S. to upgrade its bicycle transportation network. Its goal is to achieve “a Tube network for the bike”, an interconnected web of “direct, high-capacity, joined-up cycle routes” consisting of both on-street bike lanes and off-street bike paths and boulevards.
Hong Kong’s government considers cycling as recreation, not a transportation mode worth seriously pursuing. For instance, the design process of the New Territories Cycle Track Network explicitly excluded consideration of how it might transport people from where they live to where they might want to go. Hong Kong’s official policy, set forth in the May 2010 document, General Improvement Measures to Existing Cycling Facilities, published on the HK Government’s Cycling Information Center (CIC) website and repeated in various government communications since, is “As the road network and public transport system in Hong Kong are well developed, and the general road traffic is heavy and road space is limited… we do not encourage the use of bicycles as a transport mode in urban areas.” Rather than working to figure out how to make it safe for more cyclists to ride on the roads, the Hong Kong government focuses on closing busy streets to bicycling. Since the supposed problematic conditions cited are typical for any large first-world city, for instance those discussed earlier in this post, the reasoning for not supporting cycling in urban area seems questionable.
Furthermore, even for recreation the official bike trail / path system is limited, as shown by the comparison charts. Although there are probably several hundred kilometers of paved and improved walking and hiking trails in Hong Kong Country parks (the longest four trails alone total 298 kilometers), bicycling is prohibited on almost all of them except for ten designated mountain bike trails that total only 110 kilometers. And the official recreational bike paths that do exist are often in poor repair. Furthermore the number of bike parking spaces in many locations seems inadequate.
With respect to transporting bicycles by public transit, it appears that they are not allowed on buses. And treatment of bikes on the subway (MTR) is ambiguous. Although bicycling advocacy groups were able to persuade the MTR Corporation to formally announce in a December 2011 meeting that bicycles are allowed on all its lines, the MTR has never publicly promoted that. And the CIC website continues to publish a rule that predates the 2011 change. Additionally MTR staff apparently have been instructed to require the removal of a wheel from bikes on the subway.
Nevertheless, in spite of these impediments, there are a number of Hong Kongers that bicycle regularly to work and for errands and to public transportation, especially in the New Territories and, as already noted, on the outlying islands. Additionally Hong Kong does have a significant and active bicycling community working for more recognition by the government of cycling as an important transportation mode. HKCI.net has almost 6,500 members. And the Hong Kong Cycling Alliance (HKCAll) is fighting hard for a proposed Harbourfront Cycleway from Chai Wan to Kennedy Town.
Even in cities that ultimately come to embrace cycling, bicycle transportation advocates early on, before cycling proves itself in a area, typically have to fight erroneous public and government assumptions similar to those in Hong Kong. These include unsubstantiated beliefs that greater cycling traffic will increase accident rates, that a city’s road network and traffic conditions are uniquely problematic for cycling, and that creating bicycle infrastructure is not cost effective and provides no economic benefit. As my previous post discussed, examples to the contrary are plentiful. So there is still hope for Hong Kong.
Many thanks to Ying Ying, Jackey Law, Martin Turner, Janet Walberg Rankin, Doug Pulleyblank, and Nick Andrew for talking with me about cycling in Hong Kong and/or making me aware of world bicycle transportation trends. If there are mistakes in what I’ve written, it’s my fault not theirs.
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 are by Dante Archangeli except the Peng Chau Bike Shrine photo is by Diana Archangeli.