Being a cyclist in Hong Kong can mean taking your life in your hands.
This is a story for dreamers about a forbidden pleasure. The pleasure is cycling. And it has to do with feeling free and being independent, transporting yourself, saving money, working muscles, burning calories and helping the environment.
Dreamers can think about living in a world where pedalling (as in China, New Zealand, Belgium or Oregon) gets you where you want to go, where bikes are accepted on trains and ferries, where bike racks are as common as taxi stands, and cyclists and drivers have a designated space on the road.
But the scenario works better in Bruges than Causeway Bay.
For the majority of would-be cyclists, cycling in Hong Kong is off-limits.
Out of a population of 6.5 million, there are a few hundred, maybe – the brave and skilled for sure – who persist in an inhospitable environment.
As Hong Kong car-owners face the threat of taxation, as the city grapples with traffic congestion, as the quality of the air worsens, and as residents grow fatter, cycling would have been a possible solution years ago for a far-sighted city planner. But not now.
But reality never stood in the way of dreamers. Simon Chau relies on his bicycle for transportation. But the linguistics professor, who lives in Tai Po, rarely ventures near the traffic-clogged streets of Tsim Sha Tsui or Central. He feels safer in the rural confines of the New Territories. ‘Bike lanes? The few we have in Tai Po took 10 years to get.’ When Sandi Butchkiss worked in Manhattan in the 70s and 80s, the American writer cycled 20 blocks to work. Her ad agency even provided bike racks for the staff.
‘The traffic in downtown Manhattan was so slow,’ Ms Butchkiss recalls, ‘cycling was safe and faster than the bus. But in Mid-Levels, her bike stays in the car boot. When the urge to pedal hits, she heads for the New Territories. ‘Cycle on the island? I’m not that crazy.’ Tim Obendorf remembers cycling on the island in the early 80s, when Bowen Road was still open to cyclists, when the Star Ferry allowed bikes on the lower deck, when pedalling the south ring of the island was more of a pleasure than a hazard.
‘It was easier then, there were more opportunities and fewer cars,’ says the director of International Cyclists to Asia, who confines his riding to Yuen Long, China and Tibet.
Regardless, cycling for work or play is an uphill struggle against lack of space, too many cars and lack of legislation.
It also goes against the Hong Kong lifestyle where children are not raised in a tricycle-bicycle environment, unlike other Asian cities or the Mainland, where economic necessity in Beijing makes bike lanes as wide as airport runways in rural North America.
Cycling also goes against the Hong Kong status quo: aspiring for a driving licence in order to attain and afford the coveted four-wheeled status symbol.
‘Young people are not interested in bicycles,’ observes Cheng Chi-fei. ‘They want cars. They look down on bicycles.’ But the Hong Kong-born graphics artist bought his first bike at 14, and decades later still pedals daily from Happy Valley to his shop in Quarry Bay.
His nine bicycles afford transportation and status. One of his sleek racers – an Italian import – retails, including parts, for $40,000. ‘It’s my Rolls-Royce,’ he says. For years Jaime Gill pedalled from his Pokfulam home to work in Happy Valley.
‘Hong Kong is inhospitable for many good reasons,’ said British-born Gill, who began cycling here at 35 for fitness. ‘Consider the sheer amount of traffic.
‘There are more than 500,000 vehicles registered. There are 1,600 kilometres of roads. That means there are three metres per vehicle. And cars are bigger than that.
‘A cyclist has a thin profile, only the width of his body. If he goes into a driver’s blind spot, he’s basically invisible to the driver.
‘So, if people insist on cycling and want to survive, you have to play like the big boys. You cycle as if you were an automobile.’ Working against cyclists and drivers is the lack of laws: none regarding helmets or bicycle registration. As the number of cars increase, so do the number of accidents involving bicycles.
According to statistics from the Royal Hong Kong Police, the number of traffic accidents involving cyclists is on the rise. In 1994, there were 689 accidents, including nine fatalities. In 1992, there were 527, including 15 deaths.
‘If you really want to bike in Hong Kong, get out,’ advises Iain Dacre, half-seriously. The 44-year-old tri-athelete, also known as ‘Bike Man’ has been cycling in Hong Kong for over 10 years. He commutes from his home on Lantau to work in Mongkok.
‘Hong Kong is not, and was never, designed for bicycles. It’s that simple,’ says Dacre. ‘You’ve got to be nuts to ride in Hong Kong. Go to the New Territories. But good luck in getting there.’ So how do nervous yet aspiring cyclists hone those skills when transporting a bicycle from Central to the New Territories, which is a migraine unless you own a car, borrow one or venture forth before 5am? Though cyclists have done it, the MTR does not allow bringing a bicycle on board due to lack of space. ‘They’re considered bulky baggage,’ explains Miranda Leung of the MTR.
But when asked for a definition, Ms Leung was at a loss. ‘We need one. And we’re working on one now.’ The by-laws of the Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation (KCRC) stipulate that motor vehicles, motorcycles, bicycles and similar conveyances cannot be driven or parked on the trains.
Baggage by their definition cannot exceed 66 by 46 by 25cm, according to Jane Leung of the KCRC.
But when I questioned an attendant at the KCRC information desk at Tai Po station, she said bicycles are allowed during low traffic periods – with the station-master’s permission.
The Hong Kong Ferry Company allows cyclists on ferries going to Mui Wo, Peng Chau and Cheung Chau for a small fee.
The Polly Ferry Company allows bicycles on board for their service from Ma Liu Shui to Ping Chau. A bike fee is also charged.
Trajn Boughan solved the carrying problem by buying a bike bag. She slips the bicycle into the bag, and boards the subway ‘without a problem.
‘I’ve seen things on the MTR bigger than a bike,’ reports the American-born architect and avid cyclist.
Cycling with confidence comes from knowing the bike, knowing the rules of the road, how to ride and pace yourself in traffic. When he cycles, Shaun Eddleston rarely goes off Hong Kong island.
‘Cycling is a way to keep fit and ‘blow off the cobwebs,’ minds the surveyor.
‘I cycle on paths around Hong Kong island. There is a maze of them, but you have to find them. They exist.’ But he won’t divulge his favourites. Never in five years of riding has he encountered problem with a pedestrians, hikers or police.
‘You follow the biker’s code. Give pedestrians the right of way, wear a helmet, use toe clips, and when you ride in the street, have an attitude.
‘Assume you are a vehicle, not a bicycle. Don’t hug the kerb, or they [traffic] won’t respect you. When going downhill, ride in the centre of your lane, act like a car, and pedal as fast as one.
‘When going uphill, stay close to the kerb, but don’t hug it. Give cars space to pass.’
While there are 40 country parks, on paper not all allow cycling. Whether the law is enforced is another matter, according to many cyclists who challenge the ‘bikes not allowed’ signs. In Tuen Mun, according to one rider, the signs were put up by the water department, not the police. ‘The water department doesn’t want to take the responsibility of you falling into a 5-metre drainage hole.’ Wherever there is a paved road and residents, such as in Sai Kung park, one cyclist forges ahead.
‘If I get caught, who says all gweilos speak English? Or maybe, I just didn’t see the sign.’ Cheng believes cyclists need to be brave. His brother Kwong agrees. And now, he’s teaching his wife, a Hong Kong woman who never rode a bicycle until her mid-20s.
‘You build confidence by practice,’ says the computer specialist who takes his wife to a Quarry Bay playground and nearby streets every Sunday morning to practise. ‘When the traffic gets bad, we stop.’