Nov 08, 2012|
What would happen to our city if everyone decided to hop on a bike one day? Advocates fantasize about an eco-friendly and ultra-convenient mode of transport that would contribute to a vibrant street-level community and ease the congestion on our overtaxed road system. But is it really that simple? Below, we highlight five arguments for a bike-friendly city that might just compel urban planners and lawmakers to revisit their blueprints.
It may seem obvious, but we’re going to spell it out for you—cycling can do tons to improve your health. According to health center Sports Performance’s physiotherapy manager, Aaron Smith, the direct and very obvious benefits of cycling are not only a stronger cardiovascular system (which keeps your heart and lungs healthy) but also very good strength training for the legs. A strong cardiovascular system can result in a lower chance of heart disease, among other illnesses.
But can’t we get the same benefits from other forms of exercise, too? Well, yes and no. “One of the main differences between cycling and other cardiovascular activities like running and walking is that with cycling, you put less strain on your joints,” Smith explains. So for someone who’s older, or has damaged joints or arthritis, taking up cycling would be a much gentler activity than taking up jogging. But if you don’t have those kinds of limitations, then running and walking are also valid activities that can help you attain similar health benefits.
The calories burned in an average cycling session depends on the intensity of the ride, Smith continues. “If the rider pedals at a lower resistance and a lower RPM (revolutions per minute), then he or she will be expending less energy than someone who is pedaling with more tension and at a faster speed,” Smith adds. But generally speaking—and this applies to any type of exercise across the board—one needs to be working out at least three to four times a week at 20- to 30-minute intervals to truly be getting the benefits of a healthy lifestyle.
As much as cycling can help us maintain a fitter frame and healthier body, we also have to make sure we take up the sport safely, so that the risks don’t outweigh the benefits. For instance, city cycling comes with its own set of dangers. Traffic, for one, is a major obstacle on the road. The roads in Hong Kong are quite narrow and unforgiving, Smith says. So outdoor cyclists should remember to wear their helmets at all times in order to maximize their safety. Air pollution is another factor; cycling on a hazy, smoggy day in Hong Kong is probably not a good idea. But during those times, cyclists can head indoors and practice on bikes at the gym instead.
There’s no doubt about it: we Hongkongers love our public transport. From the numerous bus routes that take you from out-of-the-way spots in the New Territories to the center of town to MTR trains that arrive with down-to-the-minute precision, we have one of the best systems in the world. How, then, could cruising around on a bike be more convenient for the commuter?
There are a number of reasons, actually, most owing to the flexibility that cycling offers. Anita Lo, a 53-year-old New Territories resident, has been using cycling as a means of transport for the last five years or so, and loves the freedom it offers. “When you’re biking, you control your own route,” she says, adding that she rides her bike every day to pick up groceries and go out for lunch. “It’s a very direct means of transport,” she adds.
Think about it: a bike doesn’t have to take a long roundabout route or stop periodically to let people on or off—you can go straight from point A to B. “You can’t use taxis or minibuses to get to different shops in corners of Mong Kok or Wan Chai [without some walking], for example,” adds Chan Ka-leung of the Hong Kong Cycling Alliance. In fact, biking is often comparable to public transport in terms of speed—it can even be quicker, depending on the route. Lo often cycles all the way from Tuen Mun to Tsuen Wan—the trip takes her an hour, just 15 minutes more than a trip on the MTR (and that’s not even including walking to the station and getting to the platform), and about the same time as by bus (a 40 to 60-minute trip).
On the island side, Chan adds that the trip from North Point Ferry to Wan Chai along Hennessey Road “takes 12 to 15 minutes—and three minutes of that is waiting at traffic lights.” Of course, cycling is by no means a perfect transport solution. Anita’s sister Lilian Lo, who has been cycling regularly since 2007, cites traffic and careless drivers as headaches for cyclists, and traffic can sometimes make trips take longer.
Compared to mechanized vehicles, cycling is almost 100-percent environmentally friendly. It produces no noise or air pollution, which has long been blamed for endangering Hongkongers’ mental and physical health. But will increasing cycling instantly benefit the environment? When reviewed in the particular context of Hong Kong, unfortunately, things are not that simple.
A cycling study done in 2004 by the Transportation Department suggests that increasing cycling would only cut carbon dioxide emissions and reduce noise if it resulted in less mechanized traffic in the urban areas, where the traffic volume (from vehicles’ engines, exhaust pipes, horns, etc.) and horrible air is a much bigger issue than that in the New Territories. And since it is anticipated that most new cyclists in Hong Kong would in fact switch from public transport—not private cars—to cycling, the result of “less mechanized traffic” is unlikely to materialize.
“Theoretically, if more people chose to bike instead of drive, it would help reduce the roadside pollution,” Yuling Jia, education and research manager at Clean Air Network, explains. “However, the major contributors of roadside pollution are commercial diesel vehicles like cargo trucks and buses.” Statistics show that although commercial diesel vehicles account for only 20 percent of all roadside vehicles, they produce most of the roadside pollution. Goods vehicles alone—both heavy and light models—make up 75 pecent of respirable suspended particulates and 70 percent of nitrogen oxides in our city’s polluted air; and those vehicles are still going to be there even if there are more bikers. “So even if there’s a change, it would be a very slight one,” concludes Jia.
It seems that increasing cycling would reduce noise and vehicle emissions if a critical mass of bus-takers in the urban areas switched to cycling for their daily transport—so many that it would reduce the number of commercial buses needed to serve commuters and passengers in those areas. But then again, given the city’s underdeveloped cycling infrastructure, such a scenario looks far away from reality. At this point, Clean Air Network suggests even citizens avoid riding bikes on the roadside in the busy districts in Hong Kong such as Causeway Bay and Central because of the severe air pollution.
If more people commuted within urban areas using bikes, cycling concern groups believe, it could have a positive impact on our roads. With Hong Kong’s heavy traffic, it’s not hard to see how reducing the number of motorized vehicles would significantly improve our traffic conditions. Take Queen’s Road, for example. Using the route finder on the Citybus and New World First Bus websites, we estimate that there are roughly 100 bus stops along Queen’s Road, from its westernmost end of the road in Kennedy Town to its easternmost point in Wan Chai. There are also close to 100 bus routes that one could feasibly use to get from one point to another, either along Queen’s Road or to a nearby street. Consider that buses in Hong Kong tend to operate about 15 minutes apart (and even closer together during rush hour) and you can see how much traffic is generated just to shuttle commuters along a straight, level road—one that could be easily biked.
The truth is that many Hongkongers are stuck in a mindset that urban commuting can only be done using buses, trains and trams—even though these methods are inefficient for short distances. Chan Ka-leung of the Hong Kong Cycling Alliance explains how convenient it is to get around the island by bike. “Sometimes people who are not used to cycling in urban areas will join our events, and they’ll cycle with us and go, ‘Wow! I can’t believe that we went from Central to Wan Chai in four minutes!’ It’s a really compact city,” he says.
However, Peter Cookson Smith, president of the Hong Kong Institute of Planners, doesn’t see cycling as a practical solution to our congestion woes. “In the urban area, trying to pretend that cycling as a form of transport is viable is just nonsense. It’s fine in certain European cities, and it works very, very, well. But here, for all sorts of reasons, it cannot really work.” He cites our high-rises and their lack of connectivity to viable cycling roads as a reason. “We’re not like an older European city, where someone can literally come out of their front garden and cycle along the road,” he adds.
It would be important, some say, to incentivize drivers of other vehicles to get off the road, or to make room for cyclists in some other comprehensive way. But that doesn’t deter Chan. He and other members of the Cycling Alliance regularly commute by bike on the Island and don’t see why others shouldn’t follow suit. Besides the freedom and flexibility that cycling gives (see “Transport Efficiency” on p.8), there’s an added benefit: cost. “It’s so cheap!” Chan enthuses. “You can go where you want, when you want and it doesn’t cost a thing.”
Despite the fact that, in the last decade, the number of kilometers of cycling track
and the number of bike racks have both increased manifold—which are both positive signs—the needs of cyclists are nonetheless often ignored when it comes to town planning and urban development projects.
The expansions, improvements and new facilities have been largely limited to the northern New Territories, which leaves cyclists in urban areas wondering if there is a misconception that cycling is only done in certain parts of Hong Kong and in designated, dedicated areas.
“There is a perception that the Transport Department has that cycling takes place only on cycle tracks, and that is the infrastructure that cyclists have to use,” says Martin Turner of the Hong Kong Cycling Alliance. “It seems like a plot against cyclists, but it’s simply that we’re not part of the system. Like in Tseung Kwan O, you can’t get from one place to another because all the roads are in the way. All these places are designed without any thought for cyclists.”
Some urban planning experts counter that there are numerous factors, like the effect on pedestrians, high costs and sheer feasibility, that get in the way of catering to cyclists when it comes to developments like building bike lanes in dense downtown neighborhoods or a continuous harborfront path for cyclists (see p.11 for more on this plan). “I hate to be cynical, because I actually go cycling myself—I’m not a philistine—but I think you have to look logically at this,” says President of the Hong Kong Institute of Planners Peter Cookson Smith. “Cycling is politically correct. Everyone thinks, ‘We really must do that,’ without sitting back and saying, ‘Is it logical, and is it compromising what we are really trying to do with the waterfront?’” It would make more sense to make access to existing tracks and facilities in the New Territories easier for urban dwellers, Cookson Smith adds, than, say, paint a bike lane down Queen’s Road Central.
Others, like Feng Zhang, believe that the key to getting urban planners and government officials to heed the pleas of cyclists is to throw more research into their faces. An assistant professor in the department of urban planning and design at the University of Hong Kong, Zhang is applying for funding to do a comprehensive study of cycling in Hong Kong in order to both document its multipurpose, widespread nature and quantify its myriad benefits. There are many research findings showing the positive effects of cycling in other cities, but none here in Hong Kong.
An optimist, Zhang believes that while officials do acknowledge the growing practice of cycling, given the changes that have been made in the New Territories, they’ve yet to make large-scale planning changes or initiate new projects in urban areas such as Hong Kong Island and Kowloon because of a lack of evidence of demand. He advocates for small experiments that can inform grander decisions, like creating a small bike path along the waterfront and studying how it is used to see if a more comprehensive east-west path would be worth it. If urban planning ultimately comes down to a cost-benefit analysis, Zhang wants to help prove that improving life for cyclists in Hong Kong would ultimately result in more good stuff than bad stuff.
“A cycling track in an urban center can create a more appealing image for Hong Kong—that we are more eco-friendly, we are for a sustainable goal. It could be a good selling point,” Zhang says. “Frankly, I agree with the government that the room for cycling is small... We still have to be practical. If we could find some good benefits, then we can advocate for it. I’m going to be one of those advocates. But I need some evidence first!”
Read more articles about cycling in Hong Kong:
Whose Harbour? - People are pushing for a bike path, but not everyone thinks allowing cyclists into the planned harborfront areas is a good thing.
Putting the Brakes On - Grace Tsoi examines how the government’s lack of action is hampering the widespread use of bikes in Hong Kong.