Transit Jam’s inaugural online forum Rethinking “Vehicles First” drew 45 participants from Hong Kong and overseas for a lively two-hour programme of ideas, vision and debate on tackling the city’s major urban transport challenges.
Session Five of the forum, “Modes: Two Wheels (or legs) Bad?”, tackled the issues, challenges and misconceptions surrounding bicycle transport in Hong Kong. Martin Turner, chairman of Hong Kong Cycling Alliance, addressed today’s key issues, namely a government reluctance to recognise bikes as a legitimate mode of transport and a failure to collect useful data. Justin Yim, founder of Hong Kong’s Street Reset and Graduate Transport Planner with Phil Jones and Associates in London, introduced urban design perspectives, while Oren Tatcher, Principal of OTC Planning & Design, said space was a real issue that needed debate.
A call for data
Turner said he would take a different approach to the usual “cycle debate”.
“When I talk about cycling, a lot of the same concerns are raised and I have simple answers for them, but I have a different proposition today: the government, and academics, haven’t done the basic research, the basic data gathering to provide a platform for a realistic consideration of what cycling can do for Hong Kong as part of the transport mix,” he said.
Turner said the city should investigate and experiment – as many other cities have done – with what cycling can do, to find a role for cycling and develop it.
“Cities and countries have taken up cycling as part of social distancing, for example, allocating entire lanes to cyclists which weren’t there before, as well as enabling more social distancing for pedestrians.”
“Paris has taken up, under the new mayor [Anne Hidalgo], cycling and walking. Paris didn’t have the kind of ‘cycling tradition’ that people associate with Copenhagen or Amsterdam. And those places didn’t have a cycling tradition before the 1970s.”
“There’s a lot of cycling in Hong Kong but we don’t really know what the split is. Transport Department (TD) will have us believe that cycling is basically for leisure. For a long time, there was no recognition of cycling as transport. Even today, in my experience, there’s no real taking on board of cycling as a part of the transport system; it’s mentioned as something that happens in the New Territories.”
TD is the key to all this, because other departments follow them in terms of how cycling is approached.
Turner said the aim of Hong Kong Cycling Alliance was to make cycling available for a much wider audience. “It’s simple, fast, effective, you get to where you want to be, there’s a certainty, the isochrones are circular, there’s resilience built in, if there’s a holdup, the road is closed, you can go a different way.”
Noting that for a subset of riders, the present streetscape is surprisingly viable, he said “On a bicycle you get the benefit of a small mobile vehicle and the network of roads that gets you quickly anywhere. We need to take that proof of concept and make it work for much larger numbers of people.
But why are we not doing the research, why is there not more experimentation – the government should be doing more on this.”
On issues of space, Turner challenged the tendency to envision cyclists as additional travellers rather than people who are substituting for other modes of transport. The problem is, he said, the data is limited.
“We don’t know how many bikes there are [in Hong Kong]. I get asked this and I can’t give a straight answer. Every 10 years the Travel Characteristics Survey says how many households have bikes available, but the data is unreliable. The annual studies by the TD have no mention of cycling at all.”
Turner cited New York City, with a graph of changing cycling levels there that showed NYC was gathering street-level cycling data 20 years before the upsurge in cycling participation. “Why aren’t we doing the same thing?” he asked.
Justin Yim said the goal of cycle planning was to prioritise sustainable modes of transport over cars and less space-efficient private vehicles.
Cycling, he said, needs to be treated as any other mode of transport: people on bikes need direct and joined-up routes, while planners should avoid points where cyclists need to dismount.
“If tracks require cyclists to give way at each junction, which is what we see in Hong Kong, it results in cyclists just choosing to travel on the main carriageway, which is exactly what happens in Hong Kong,” he said.
Hong Kong’s approach is to focus on education and enforcement, he said, whereas a more holistic approach sees engineering as the priority. “In Hong Kong, we’re not retrofitting urban roads to improve cycling conditions using an engineering approach. This failure has cost us the lives of 46 cyclists from 2013 to 2017 – and more than 80% of these died on the carriageway without physical separation,” said Yim.
Yim introduced protected junctions as recently installed in two UK cities, as well as the idea of “early release signals” for cyclists, which give cyclists a four-second headstart at traffic lights and are proven to reduce collision risk.
Yim also called for a general lowering of speed limits in Hong Kong, a move which would protect cyclists and pedestrians alike.
“According to WHO, we see 90% pedestrian collision survival at 30 kph, but only a 30% survival rate if struck by a car at 50 kph, which is the current default speed limit in urban areas in HK. This fatality risk applies similarly to cyclists. Therefore, a 30kph speed limit should be set as the norm on city streets, protecting not only cyclists but pedestrians as well.”
According to Yim, over 40% of London’s urban streets now have this limit, improving road safety across the city.
Yim also talked about “filtered permeability”, providing low-traffic environments within “superblocks”, to make our streets human-first rather than vehicles-first – the gist is to discourage through traffic, as seen in Barcelona.
“There will only be more cyclists in Hong Kong,” said Yim, claiming it would be irresponsible of the government not to taker better care of them.
The forum then turned its attention to a wider use of bike transport, covering the cargo bike phenomenon seen in London recently. A presentation on behalf of Pedal Me in London demonstrated clean last-mile solutions. This was a collaboration with Lambeth Council in London, and showed that e-cargo bikes offer a clear alternative to vans for large-scale logistics operations.
In late March 2020, as the UK entered lockdown, London’s Lambeth Council decided to partner with Pedal Me to assist with the delivery of thousands of care packages, consisting of essential home products and food, to the individuals and families most in need. This was the single largest cargo bike logistics operation in the UK: Pedal Me covered 20,000 km to deliver nearly 10,000 packages, around 150 tonnes of cargo, across Lambeth.
“It kept the streets cleaner, in terms of emissions, enhanced road safety, and saved around five tonnes of CO2, so really it’s a great solution and we need to be promoting these stories of global excellence in our city,” said forum moderator James Ockenden in introducing the concept.
Issues of space
“I think we all agree, the allocation of space in Hong Kong – road space and street space – is way too skewed towards motor vehicles.”
Oren Tatcher came in with a different proposition – that cycling advocates often fail to discuss the most important issue of space.
“Often the advocates for cycling correctly pitch it against motor vehicles. I have nothing against saying that bikes should be given priority over motor vehicles,” he said.
“For me the issue is, in a dense urban environment, where we have lots of people and very limited space, if we are redistributing space away from motor vehicles, where does that space go? The space issue with bikes is not just about lanes and carriageways. It’s also about bike parking.”
And parking is no small issue, said Tatcher. “If you look at various European cities where biking is very popular they have massive facilities for bike parking. It is not a small thing. And I have yet to hear a compelling solution to that problem [for Hong Kong].”
Tatcher mentioned Justin Yim’s comments on biking networks, making the point that a consistent bike network also needed consistent bike parking network.
In New York City, said Tatcher, bike infrastructure actually only served a tiny proportion of the population. “It is a great solution, but it is a niche solution, I do believe the backbone in HK should be public transport and pedestrian space. The problem we see in Hong Kong is we need to solve pedestrian space first of all. And then if we have spare space, and it doesn’t compromise that backbone, I’m all for it.”
Martin Turner countered that there was no need for a complete or sizeable bike parking network to start with, at least not on the scale of the Amsterdam bike parks shown by Tatcher.
Tatcher clarified that biking would be a niche solution in cities like Manhattan or Hong Kong. “Amsterdam is a different story,” he said.
“So the parking problem is much more easily solvable,” said Turner. “We don’t need huge infrastructure if it’s a niche solution.”
Justin Yim agreed with Tatcher that public transport needs to remain the network backbone. But he said there was a role for bikes to take the “first and last mile” of those public transport journeys, and that repurposing some car parking space might address the space problem.
“A car parking space can fit eight bicycles. If some parking could be retrofitted to bikes, would it be enough to provide enough cycle parking spaces around where people need to be? Long term if cycling really reaches a critical mass then that would be something we could consider later. In the short term could this be enough?”
Tatcher said it was certainly something that should be studied. He said he first became aware of the issue on his way to a meeting in a Manhattan skyscraper. It was rush hour, he said, and a cyclist pushed his way into the lift with his bike. “He came with a bit of an attitude, ‘I am here with my bike, make room’, so we all squeezed in, and I thought, how is this scalable? What it everybody thinks it’s OK to take their bike up to work?”
“In some areas, such as residential areas on Bonham Road, there may be a solution in repurposing car parking spaces – but in Sheung Wan, there’s very few car parking spaces, you could repurpose them all and it wouldn’t be enough,” said Tatcher.
“The scalability is the trouble. And of course, the space available for pedestrians should be the priority.”
An audience member, Alok Jain, asked a question about bringing bikes on buses. Tatcher recounted the story of the New York MTA chief, who’d been asked why he didn’t have a policy banning bikes on the MTA. “Paraphrasing, he said something like ‘you try bringing your bike on the subway in the rush hour and see if you don’t get a lot of nasty looks and comments’,” said Tatcher.
On the suggestion that buses have front-mounted bike racks, Tatcher said he didn’t think bus passengers would be very happy to wait for cyclists to load up their bikes.
“But it’s very fast,” said Turner. “20 seconds.”
Wrapping up, Tatcher said where he and the cycle advocates were on the same page was in the allocation of space. “I think we all agree, the allocation of space in Hong Kong, road space and street space, is way too skewed towards motor vehicles.”