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. However, 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.
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 territory got in gear.
“Hong Kong needs cycling. We have transportational gridlock, air quality problems, health problems. Cycling is the solution to all of those,” said the 50-year-old, who is originally from Surrey in England. “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 territory’s 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 pedaling 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 7 million people, Will Soo never rode a bike as a child.
However, 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 50km 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,’” Soo says.
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 territory’s third-ever medalist.
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.
However, 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, Australia, said.