Reflections on recent events, plus the occasional fact
free rant unfiltered by rational argument.
Don’t panic. I’m not inviting you to wear lycra. But, no matter how you add it up, bikes make sense. They improve people’s health, are better for the environment than cars, and are an investment in societal well-being. Studies from Purdue University in the US have shown that regular cycling can cut your risk of heart disease by 50 percent. Cycling just 20 miles a week reduces your risk of heart disease.
Those benefits are felt across the whole of society. Research in the Nordic nations reveals a one to eight return by investing in cycling infrastructure. That gain comes in fitter people, fewer hospital visits and less air pollution. Layered atop that is the phycological merits of exercise; better mood, with stress levels reduced.
Meanwhile, if you drive for an hour in any major urban centre during rush hour, you’ll spend over 30 minutes going nowhere. Your average speed just 7mph. Get on a bike, and the average speed is around 12-15mph.
Building cycle paths changes the topography of a city, moulding the ebb and flow of people. It’s a case of you build it, then they will come. Bike hiring and sharing schemes supplement the process. The best outcomes result from separating motor vehicles and bicycles.
The Dutch kicked the process off in 1965. Anarchists started taking back the roads from cars, citing the congestion and pollution. Mass rides, the blocking of roads and such activities created a political movement. That then brought about policy changes. This grassroots activity forced officials to act.
These days most modern cities recognise that car use needs discouraging. Meanwhile, cycling policies create routes and the supporting structures. You generate the opportunity; the public does the rest.
In this regard, Hong Kong has made some progress, although the government policy is arcane. It portrays cycling as a recreational activity, thus ignoring the potential for commuting and delivery of goods. Given the thrust of the system, the cycling network covers the NT. Both Hong Kong Island and Kowloon are lacking provision.
The cycle tracks that exist are excellent in places, while shoddy in others. Illegal parking blights some sections, especially in the village areas. Powerful local interests resist enforcement action. Encroachment by construction work is a constant threat. Construction traffic routinely blocks the cycleway between Shatin and Tai Po. Again, government agencies appear unwilling to address this.
Some assert that Hong Kong’s climate and geography make cycling a minority interest. It's sure you wouldn’t want to be climbing the Peak on a regular commuter ride. Leave that to the professionals. That’s not the point. Most of the Kowloon peninsula is ideal for bikes; it's flat. Yet, it has no cycling infrastructure. Not even shared-use bike lanes or bike priority areas. This is despite the evidence that a bike could move people and materials quicker. Those congested concrete canyons look to remain. The north shore of Hong Kong Island is perfect for bike commuting. Except, no cycling infrastructure.
Hong Kong’s progress in building cycle tracks is moving at a slow pace. In places, it’s stalled by vested interest. The much-trumpeted circular route from Tsuen Wan to Shatin is now looking unlikely. In Sham Tseng, residents and shops have objected, despite the fact that cyclists would bring business to the area.
The car lobby and others often argue that cyclists don’t pay road tax. They object to bikes on 'their' roads, as if owning a car gives a privilege. They pay to use the road, and cyclists should do the same. It’s an interesting argument. If motorists paid the full cost of road use, they’d be unlikely to afford a car. Setting aside the fact that no such thing as road tax exists, let's weigh up the numbers.
The data tells us that one mile of protected cycle track is between fifty to hundred times cheaper than one mile of road. Different construction materials and terrain account for the variation. Thus, in the worse case for one mile of road, you get to build a cycle track 50 miles long. Then you’ve got the environmental cost of burning hydrocarbons. Add to that the disposal cost of a car once it reaches the end of its life; that would give us a full life-cycle costing.
The final tally is stunning. Over a five year period an average car, including purchase, will cost the owner HK$488,600-. That’s about half a million dollars. A reasonable quality bike over the same period will cost the owner HK25,000-. Thus, you’d save HK$463,600 by cycling. And that’s without calculating the health gains.
Besides, biking is the fastest and cheapest way to open up full transportation systems. Think about it, for every cyclist a seat is vacated on public transport. Plus, you don’t need car-parking spots downtown. No matter how you cut it, bikes make economic and environmental sense. The numbers speak for themselves.
Granted a bike can carry one person, but most private cars are only moving one person on the daily commute. I’m not suggesting the bike can replace the car in all situations. For lengthy commutes, from remote areas, and for groups of people, the vehicle may be the best option. I recognize that severe weather is a deterrent, while the summer heat may discourage some.
To open up new areas, shared use paths are an option. In fact, that's what you’ve got because joggers and pedestrians normally use the bike paths. On the bike sharing front, Hong Kong is experiencing a massive experiment. This uncontrolled trial may or may not work. There is some dispute about whether you make money from shared schemes. No one can agree on that, but that’s not the point.
What is important is to apply the optimum approach. For instance, dock-less bike schemes bring challenges like the above picture shows. An oversupply of bikes can congest pedestrian walkways. This annoys people, turning attitudes. Docked shared bikes is the best option as seen in London. That entails planning, construction of docking space, with a consequential increase in costs. Thus, there is a balance that needs assessing.
Hong Kong faces stumbling blocks to integrate cycles into the city. Car-centric policy-makers are calling the shots with stiff resistance from entrenched interests. Until cyclists get themselves organised, its doubtful much will change.
It’s unquestionable that the demand for bike routes exists. Venture to Shatin any weekend to witness the hundreds of thousands out cycling. Two years ago, I participated in the largest cycling safety lesson in history. This Guinness Book of Records event had 504 people turn up to ride. It's clear, by establishing cycling habits and acknowledging the utility of bikes, the benefits will come.
I don’t argue that the bicycle can replace the car. That’s unrealistic. What I’m seeking is infrastructure that allows bikes to integrate safely within the urban area. In the end, we all gain.
Walter De Havilland is one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Hong Kong Police.