When the West Kowloon Cultural District recently unveiled a newly revamped section of its waterfront promenade, the images it used to promote the project featured something out of the ordinary: a pair of young women on bicycles, the Hong Kong skyline rising in the background.
Hong Kong has never been known as a bicycle-friendly city. There isn’t much room for bikes in between the double-decker buses, trams, minibuses, delivery trucks and private cars that clog the city’s streets. And yet, every day, hundreds of thousands of people get around Hong Kong by bike.
It’s hard to come by data on cycling’s prevalence in Hong Kong because it has never been considered a priority by the government. The Transport Department has not conducted a cycling study since 2004. But there are nearly 220 kilometres of separated cycle tracks in the New Territories and many of them are well used. A 2009 study in Sha Tin found that 33.5 percent of the district’s 630,000 people ride a bicycle at least once a week.
Now Hong Kong could be on the cusp of a revolution. Over the past year, six bike sharing companies have launched in Hong Kong, offering bicycles that can be hired through the use of a mobile app. All you have to do is scan a QR code with your phone, hop on a bike and ride it to your destination for as little as HK$3 per half hour.
“Share bikes are the most wonderful opportunity for Hong Kong,” says Martin Turner, chairman of the Hong Kong Cycling Alliance. For years, Turner and his group have urged the government to embrace cycling as a healthy, environmentally friendly way to get around the city. And for years, the government has pushed back, insisting that cycling is nothing but a leisure activity – something to do for fun on the weekend, but not a serious way of going from A to B. “Cycling is inappropriate because of Hong Kong’s topography, climate and narrow streets,” said former Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying during his election campaign in 2011.
That attitude is reflected in the way the city’s bicycle infrastructure is designed. Although places like Tseung Kwan O, Sha Tin and Tuen Mun have expansive networks of cycle tracks, they are disjointed and inconsistent, sometimes running for a few hundred metres before disappearing. When cyclists approach an intersection or even a driveway, they are legally required to dismount and walk their bike across. One stretch of cycle track along Ping Ha Road in Yuen Long is interrupted by driveways every 20 metres. Anyone who rides a bike there would spend more time walking than cycling.
There is also a serious shortage of bicycle parking, especially outside shopping malls, markets and MTR station, and the government regularly confiscates bicycles without warning. Last year, 11,000 bikes were seized and sold for scrap without giving their owners a chance to reclaim them, a practice that Turner insists is illegal – though he hasn’t yet had a chance to challenge the government in court.
Cycling is also discouraged outside of the New Territories. It’s illegal to ride a bike along the Central harbourfront promenade, for instance, and there are virtually no cycle tracks or bicycle parking facilities in Kowloon and Hong Kong Island.
Share bikes could change all of that. Since locally-based GoBee introduced its lime green bikes last April, followed by the canary yellow bikes of Chinese giant Ofo and a host of smaller competitors, thousands of bicycles are now available for use throughout the New Territories. While media attention has focused on problems of vandalism and illegal parking, the services have proved popular, with more than 460,000 people signing up for GoBee alone. In the eight months after its launch in April, GoBee users cycled 415,418 kilometres – enough to circle the Earth ten times.
“It takes time to change the culture and penetrate the market but we have observed the difference since our successful launch in April last year,” says GoBee CEO Raphael Cohen. “Hong Kong users have changed from simply using our bikes for leisure, to also using our bikes as a daily commute.”
Cohen says the average trip on a GoBee bike is 15 minutes on a weekday and 30 minutes on a weekend, with the areas around Tai Wai and Tin Shui Wai MTR proving most active. There have been surprises in the data. Last year, on October 21, an unusual number of people used GoBee bikes to reach Tai Mei Tuk, where they watched the Gemenid meteor shower. “One of our users shared with us that riding to Tai Mei Tuk was even faster and more convenient than taking buses on that day,” he says.
The bike sharing systems are simply tapping into a cycling culture that runs deep, even if it has long been overlooked. About 3.7 million people live in the New Territories — more than half of Hong Kong’s population — and many of them use bikes to get to school, train stations and wet markets. Some trick out their bikes with blinking LED lights and thumping sound systems, blasting out K-pop beats and Cantopop classics as they cruise down the waterfront paths of Sha Tin and Tai Po.
From the Shing Mun River, cycle tracks stretch all the way up to Tai Po and around Tolo Harbour to Plover Cove. Incense smoke drifts out of temples along the route, and at one point, a 76-metre-tall statue of Kwun Yam rises from the hills. Near the end of the cycle track, in Tai Mei Tuk, some families gather every afternoon for al fresco meals on restaurant terraces, while others grill their own food in the sprawling waterfront barbecue sites. Many people end up at the Plover Cove Dam, a two-kilometre straightaway where people fly kites and cyclists ride back and forth.
Hong Kong’s urban areas have their own cycling heritage. Bicycles were a popular way to get around before the streets of Kowloon were filled with cars, trucks and buses. “The roadside parking spaces on Fuk Wah Street were full of tricycles and bicycles,” recalls Au Kwan-cheung, who owned a small knitting factory in Sham Shui Po. Retired factory technician Law Pui remembers how he cut his commute from Mong Kok to To Kwa Wan in half after he bought a bicycle.
When he was a boy in Nga Tsin Wai, the last walled village in Kowloon, Ng Chin-hung used to spend hours cycling after school. “I rented bikes with my friends from school and went to explore Kowloon Tong, Lo Fu Ngam, Kowloon City and To Kwa Wan,” he says.
Today, bicycles are still a common sight in Sham Shui Po, whose flat topography makes it an ideal place to bike around. And even in the most congested parts of the city, delivery men haul around canisters of cooking gas, baskets of wet market vegetables and bags of takeaway food on modified Phoenix bikes built in Shanghai. They’re a common sight along the tram tracks of Hong Kong Island, which serve as a kind of crosstown expressway for cyclists.
Share bikes are making their way into the urban areas, too. Ofo recently launched along the former Kai Tak Airport runway, which has been turned into a long park with cycling facilities. The former airport is being redeveloped into a residential and commercial area, and 13 kilometres of cycle tracks will thread through the district when it is completed – up from the 6.4 kilometres that were originally planned. It will be the first neighbourhood in the urban areas with dedicated cycling infrastructure.
There will also be room for cycling on a boardwalk that is being planned underneath the Island Eastern Corridor expressway, and cycling will be allowed on the car-free streets of the West Kowloon Cultural District, which already has its own bike share system. Meanwhile, bike sharing systems like GoBee and Ofo have not been opposed by the government. “They took a very sanguine view,” says Turner. “I feel there’s some cracking in the anti-cycling position of the authorities.”
After years of advocacy, the wheels of change are finally turning. It may not be long before the sight of two people enjoying a bicycle ride along the harbour isn’t unusual at all.