Hong Kong cyclists stuck at government red light

On Hong Kong's traffic-heavy streets, horns blare as speeding red taxis, double-decker buses and public minivans shuttle people to-and-from work. But there is one thing missing -- bicycles.

Cities around the world have seized on cycling as a cheap, healthy and environmentally friendly way of getting around, with New York the latest major hub to announce a bike-share scheme.

But not Hong Kong. Its government designates cycling as a leisure activity -- not a mode of transport -- and refuses to encourage commuting by bike in busier urban areas because of the risk of accidents.

Martin Turner, the chairman of the Hong Kong Cycling Alliance, believes it is about time the city got in gear.

"Hong Kong needs cycling. We have transportational gridlock, air quality problems, health problems. Cycling is the solution to all of those," the 50-year-old, who is originally from Surrey in England, said.

"But there is a bureaucratic immobility. The plan for getting people around is trains and buses. There's never been any real consideration of making cycling a part of the transport infrastructure."

When it comes to riding around the city streets, the majority of two-wheelers are men on rickety contraptions with improvised front and back crates, carrying everything from gas cannisters to live fish.

Scottish songwriter David Byrne, of Talking Heads, a cycling activist who wrote a book about pedalling through various global cities, described Hong Kong as the "worst city for cyclists that I have encountered in the whole world".

The number of cyclists killed in Hong Kong rose from 10 in 2010 to 19 last year, according to police figures, while the number of accidents involving bicycles was up from 1,914 to 2,348.

That compares to 16 killed on the streets of London and 21 in New York, cities where the number of cyclists is much higher.

Like many of Hong Kong's seven million people, Will Soo never rode a bike as a child.

But after learning how to cycle a few years ago, the 44-year-old now glides sedately through the traffic on his Brompton, dressed in a short-sleeve shirt and suit trousers.

In his office there are 2,000 people -- only three of them cycle to work.

"I don't want to wear a body-tight jersey or travel at 50 kilometres an hour," he says. "I want the people in their cars or in the bus to say, 'He's an ordinary guy and he can do that, I want to do that too.'"

However, drivers are not used to sharing the road with bicycles.

"They have the mindset that 'I'm the king of the road and you cyclists should go to the cycling track'," says Soo.

Hong Kong does have pedigree when it comes to sports cycling, with Sarah Lee Wai-Sze snatching a bronze on the track at the London Olympics this summer, becoming the city's third-ever medallist.

And Britain's David Millar, a five-time Tour de France stage winner, spent his teenage years in Hong Kong riding around its country parks, although he wrote in his autobiography that the double-decker buses were "always a hazard" and likely to knock riders off.

Sean Godley, of cycle shop Sky Blue Bikes, said keen cyclists will resort to nocturnal riding just to escape the traffic.

But it is not just the drivers who can be a danger. The shop abandoned a weekend group ride-around partly because some of the cyclists themselves were unsafe.

"Only a certain number of people have any idea about road rules. For example, they will stop to let a car make a right hand turn," Godley, from Melbourne in Australia, said.

He believes Hong Kong should have bicycle education for the young, like the UK's cycling proficiency test, but concedes there is often a lack of space to do it.

Another factor keeping riders off the roads is pollution.

The government revised its air quality objectives for the first time in 25 years in January, after university research showed pollution-related illnesses killed more than 3,000 residents a year.

Patrick Fung, campaign manager at the Clean Air Network, says the main source of pollution is traffic emissions. But his organisation is reluctant to make the promotion of cycling one of its primary goals.

"We have to be practical. There aren't many bikers in Hong Kong and the roads are not really suitable for bikers for daily commuting," he says.

He concedes it is a Catch 22 situation. People do not want to ride because of the pollution, but unless they get in the saddle the air quality is less likely to improve.

Potential cyclists, who may be put off by the lack of bicycle parking and workplace showers, will also be tempted by Hong Kong's ultra-efficient transport system, which includes metros, buses and trams.

The transport department says cycling only counts for a "very small fraction" of commuter journeys, while pointing out that it has provided 200 kilometres (125 miles) of cycle tracks in outlying new towns "for short distance travel and recreational activities".

"Since the general road traffic in Hong Kong is heavy and road space is limited, the administration does not encourage the use of bicycles as a transport mode in the urban areas based on road safety consideration," it said.

Turner rides into the legislative council complex and points to a newly installed bike rack. The provision of this type of parking is progress, he said, although he noted it was empty.

He does not believe Hong Kong should think of itself as a special case, pointing out that other more bike-orientated cities also have heavy traffic, pollution, hills and heat.

"It's about policy, coordination, planning, awareness. There's such a lack of awareness in what cycling means and how it would work," he said.

"The rest of the world is pushing ahead and making their cities cycle-friendly, improving the quality of people's lives. We can do it too."

A pair of security guards approach, apparently concerned by the two-wheeled presence.

"Cyclists are always treated with so much suspicion here," Turner said. "The premise is that cyclists are not responsible."

A cyclist makes his way through traffic in Hong Kong. On Hong Kong's traffic-heavy streets, horns blare as red taxis, double-decker buses and minivans shuttle people to work. But there is one thing missing -- bicycles.

A cyclist makes his way through traffic in Hong Kong. The majority of two-wheelers are men on rickety contraptions with improvised front and back crates, carrying everything from gas cannisters to live fish.

A cyclist makes his way along a footpath in Hong Kong. Potential cyclists, who may be put off by the lack of bicycle parking, will also be tempted by Hong Kong's ultra-efficient transport system, which includes metros, buses and trams.

Bicycles are placed in a parking area in Hong Kong. "Since the general road traffic in Hong Kong is heavy and road space is limited, the administration does not encourage the use of bicycles as a transport mode in the urban areas based on road safety consideration," the transport department says.

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