Law and Enforcement

GOVT PLANS TO LEGALISE E-SCOOTERS FOR CYCLE TRACKS

A group of police question a cyclist during an operation to improve cycle safety on Hong Kong Island - police vans and police motorbikes are lined up, while the lycra-clad cyclist on the road bike answers their questions

Police quiz a cyclist during a recent three-day operation to crack down on e-bikes and e-scooters

E-scooters and e-bikes could soon be allowed on Hong Kong cycle paths – but not roads – as the government proposes regulating e-mobility devices for the first time.

Until now, e-mobility devices have been deemed illegal in Hong Kong, with high-profile arrests and seizure of the devices and no response from government on questions regarding an e-mobility regulatory framework.

But in a u-turn on previous policy, which classed battery-powered mobility devices as “motor vehicles”, the government now says regulations for the devices should be “less stringent than that for motor vehicles, while more stringent than for bicycles”.

A mountain biker storms down a wooded trail

Under the proposed regulations, e-bikes will be allowed only on cycle paths

Early documents show the government is willing to allow devices such as e-scooters and e-bikes onto cycle tracks in the New Territories. “If properly regulated, [these vehicles] could be used for short-distance commuting where cycle track networks are more comprehensive,” the government says.

Transport Department (TD) says it plans site trials in Science Park and Tseung Kwan O in the second half of the year, and will further develop regulatory and technical requirements, including speed control, safety gear and age restrictions. New offences will also be drawn up to enforce the proposed regulations.

The site trials will focus on public acceptance of e-mobility devices on cycle tracks, the interaction between users and cyclists, as well as the impact of safety requirements. TD will then plan a legislative amendment in 2021, it says.

However, the government still says roads are the sole domain of motor vehicles (meaning cars, trucks and buses, not e-mobility devices, which were previously classed as motor vehicles), and that such devices will not be allowed onto Hong Kong’s roads.

“We are mindful our road networks are heavily used by motor vehicles,” says the government, claiming it would be too dangerous for e-mobility to share the space. E-scooters and e-bikes are also too fast for footpaths, documents explain, leaving only cycle paths as a route option for e-mobility.

An e-scooter in Hong Kong, seized by the police

An e-scooter seized by police during a crackdown on “illegal” e-bikes and e-scooters in March this year

But Sai Kung District Councillor Lai Ming-chak says, while welcoming the regulation overall, that cycleways are already too congested for new devices. “Some cycleways are way too crowded for the use of these devices, and we don’t advise users to use them on the cycleways. The government should really consult [the District Council] first,” he says.

Martin Turner, Chairman of Hong Kong Cycling Alliance, is cautiously optimistic on the proposals. “Other countries have embraced an array of electric active mobility devices for quite a while now. Implementation is often experimental as everyone works out what works best – but the key is being ready to try these exciting new options. I’m glad Hong Kong is finally taking a step towards that,” he says.

Still, Turner has qualms over the government’s approach. “Looking at the paper, I’m concerned that, as usual, government focus is on caution and restrictions rather than opportunity and improvement.”

Lawmaker Ted Hui Chi-fung, whose non-binding motion on cycling in 2017 raised the issue of the lack of e-mobility regulation, says the latest proposal is “a measure long overdue,” and says the devices should be “legalised totally”.

“It’s the right direction but still too conservative and unrealistic,” he says. “For example, how can people carry their scooter from home to the cycle path if it’s not legal to use elsewhere?”

Smoke pours from a high-rise apartment in a fire thought to be started by a charging e-scooter - a seven year old boy died in the blaze

Smoke pours from a high-rise apartment in Sha Tin in February 2020, in a fire thought to have been started by a charging e-scooter – a seven year old boy died in the blaze

Product safety is one area of concern, with several dangerous fires in the last few years, one fatal, caused by charging e-scooters. Sha Tin District Councillor Felix Chow Hiu-laam says the devices are already popular in Sha Tin but urges more details from the government. “I hope one thing the government should make clear is which model or which brand meets standards and are considered legal. It needs to be very clear,” he says.

When coming up with its proposals, the government looked at regulations from 12 other jurisdictions: Shanghai, Singapore, Tokyo, Seoul, Queensland and Victoria in Australia, UK, Germany, France, Barcelona, Washington DC and New York State. Less than half of those jurisdictions allow use of e-mobility devices on carriageways, the government says, with three cities allowing such but imposing speed limits. The majority of those cities and countries studied did not allow e-mobility devices on footpaths.

Singapore in particular has previously been cited as a benchmark model by Hong Kong government researchers – its Active Mobility Act was passed in January 2017, with tighter laws coming in late last year. The new regulations restrict e-mobility to cycle paths, require owner registration, limit product speed to 25 kph, require users to be 16 or over and request voluntary – soon to be mandatory – third-party insurance for riders.

Electric mobility devices are still de facto illegal in Hong Kong, with TD refusing to issue licences for any machines, citing road safety and product safety concerns. Nevertheless there are thought to be more than a million e-bikes and e-scooters in the city, based on import records.

Meanwhile the proposals clear up a grey area concerning electric wheelchairs, which are technically illegal at the moment but tolerated and generally ignored by police. Under the proposals, motorised wheelchairs would be allowed on footpaths, but not on cycle tracks or roads.

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