Carrie Lam’s administration has doubled down on its anti-cycling stance in urban areas, even as cities around the world are seeing a resurgence in cycling under coronavirus lockdowns and social distancing protocols.
“Owing to road safety considerations, the Government does not encourage the public to use bicycles as a mode of transport in urban areas,” the government said in an email on 24 March, when asked if cycling could provide a transport solution under “social distancing” protocols.
“If a large number of cyclists to share [sic] the busy roads in urban areas with motorists of other vehicles, the risks of accidents will also increase,” the government said.
The contrast with other cities’ Covid-19 response is stark. Social distancing and pandemic fears have shifted people all over the world from mass transit to walking and bicycling. Many countries and cities – including, to date, the UK, Germany, New Zealand, Philadelphia, New York City and Los Angeles – have specifically marked bike shops as “essential services” allowed to stay open during any lockdown, for example.
German Health Minister Jens Spahn has encouraged Germans to get around by bike as a healthy, social-distancing-appropriate mode of transportation, in preference to trains and buses, according to the Washington Post.
New York has seen ridership across key commuting bridges up 50%, according to the New York Department of Transport (which measures daily rider counts across four key bridges).
“We want people biking when they can,” New York City mayor Bill de Blasio told the city.
Bogotá showed how quickly governments can act, creating 76km of temporary bike lanes opened to support cycling – 22km of them opened overnight on 16 March by reconfiguring car lanes. “The bicycle  represents one of the most hygienic alternatives for the prevention of the virus, especially in this first preventive stage in which it is recommended to avoid close contact and crowds,” Bogotá mayor Claudia López said in a statement.
In London, Brompton Bicycle, the UK’s biggest bike maker, gave 200 key health workers free 30-day bike loans. “They came to us to avoid public transport, where social distancing is proving impossible,” said Will Butler-Adams, CEO of Brompton Bicycle. The firm has also provided free Brompton bikes to a South Kensington bookstore for delivering books to those stuck at home due to isolation and illness. “The bicycle is proving to be an essential mode of transport,” said Butler-Adams.
Part of the Hong Kong government’s rationale for discouraging bikes is that the roads are already too crowded. “The traffic in urban areas of Hong Kong is generally very heavy, with narrow and crowded roads, frequent on-street loading and unloading activities and many vehicles passing by and needing to stop temporarily. Cyclists using roads in urban areas may have to change between outer and inner lanes due to the alighting and boarding of public transport passengers, hence increasing possible risks on roads,” the government said.
The government’s safety fears are not unfounded: more than 1600 cyclists were injured and seven killed in Hong Kong in 2019. And as seen in New York City, as ridership went up on Covid-19 fears, so did accidents: injuries to cyclists rose 43% in the week ridership blossomed, according to Streetsblog NYC. But the Hong Kong government’s attitude of discouraging cycling, rather than making transport safer for vulnerable road users (as, for example, New York City’s mayor de Blasio pledged), has attracted the ire of cycling groups.
Martin Turner, chairman of Hong Kong Cycling Alliance (香港單車同盟) accused the Transport Department of maintaining “its own private fiction” that Hong Kong’s streets are somehow fundamentally unlike every other city’s.
“TD claims we have ‘narrow roads’, meaning I don’t know what, but perhaps encouraging unsafe overtaking within a single lane. Then TD officers simultaneously hold that urban streets, here at least, are dangerously busy but also so uninterrupted that a stopped bus presents a scary challenge for any urban rider. Don’t they know that average urban traffic runs slower than my mother pedalling down to the shops? Haven’t they learned anything from the cycling transformations in other cities across the world over the last 10-20 years?” said Turner.
“At this time of a highly transmissible virus, already there are more people riding bikes around town – the ones who don’t need dedicated infrastructure and can handle ignorant and sometimes aggressive motorists. But what about everyone else – the many who can ride perfectly competently, but won’t yet take their chances with real and imagined dangers out there?” he said.
Turner said there is an opportunity to be found at this time of crisis, and has recommendations to support those tentatively thinking of taking to a bike to avoid mass transit, including 20mph (32kph) speed limits on all minor roads in town, cutting lines of parked cars and coning off makeshift cycle lanes.
“We know from other cities’ experience that people will rapidly take up cycling given half a chance, and motorists will adapt just as quickly, to give the space and courtesy that is required by law. And, right now, save lives.”