Transport Department put up warning signs this weekend as a new 6-month e-mobility trial kicks off

Boffins at the Transport Department have spent millions of dollars and three years to find exactly what they wanted to find about e-mobility.

By rigging the game – allowing only specific machines on specific portions of cycle track – they have concluded that *drum roll* the only safe e-mobility is those specific machines on specific portions of cycle track.

Transport Minister Lam Sai-hung last week told LegCo that, as a result of their trial, the government had determined that things like pedal-assist e-bikes were basically too dangerous to be allowed to use the road network and should be confined to cycle tracks. E-cargo bikes will remain illegal everywhere, even on cycle tracks.

How did they reach these conclusions when they never tested a pedal-assist e-bike on the actual roads? When they never even allowed e-cargo bikes to take part in the trials?

I put these questions to Transport Department. Their response delivered the sort of scientific reasoning that gave Hong Kong 959 days of masks and the highest Covid-19 death rate in the known universe.

“[…] the government has assessed the trial results, drawn reference to the practices of other jurisdictions, and considered the dense population and high vehicular traffic flow in Hong Kong,” said a spokeswoman.

E-mobility of all stripes, the spokeswoman said, will be banned from roads “due to road safety concerns and to minimise the impact on other road users.”

In other words, they made it up as they went along.

Blaming “other jurisdictions” for their cobbled-together nonsense doesn’t add up.

Many jurisdictions around the world allow pedal-assist e-bikes on the roads, usually with conditions on power and speed. Throttle-only bikes are usually frowned upon (and often considered dangerous), but those e-bikes which give the rider a push uphill or into a headwind up to a hearty 20 kph are welcomed.

Many jurisdictions around the world actually pay people to buy e-bikes or to swap their cars for these machines. And where they are specifically banned, such as on the New York City metro, it’s usually for product safety reasons – cheap Chinese batteries are prone to bursting into flames.

Of course solid regulation on product quality is a no-brainer and something the government should have chased years ago. Inaction has actually proved fatal: a handful of fire deaths in Hong Kong and dozens around the world can be attributed to shoddy e-scooter batteries.

Meanwhile the government’s concern about the “impact on other road users” is touching but patently false. If they were concerned about other road users, they might do something about the constant illegal parking that blocks main roads (and pavements) and slows three-lane streets to a single-track crawl.

And, in fact, research from other countries shows bicycles don’t actually slow traffic by more than a tiny fraction, so it’s hard to see what Transport Department means by “impact on other road users”. Explanations are not forthcoming.

The crux of the problem is that the government treats these things as fun leisure devices that would disrupt the serious business of driving a private car or truck around the city. The car lobby has been desperate to keep new devices off the roads they believe they own, and the government has pathetically kowtowed to them, inviting, for example, the Automobile Association but not the Hong Kong Cycling Alliance to secretive discussions on e-mobility formats.

But the “leisure view” is narrow and outdated. E-mobility, particularly the e-cargo bike, is becoming a professional logistics choice in many cities.

Amazon has rolled out many different types of e-cargo bike in finding the best urban solutions (photo: Amazon)

In London, Amazon is replacing thousands of van journeys with e-cargo bikes, and firms such as Fedex, DHL, UPS, DB Schenker, DPD, GLS Austria and Hermes (the German logistics firm, not the handbags) are among leaders in that growing field.

The bikes themselves are just part of the solution – they combine with e-cargo bike “last mile” hubs and sorting areas, showing investment not only in transport technology but the basic warehouse infrastructure to deliver real change. And the investment there is largely coming from business capital and private investors (I’m personally invested in London-based PedalMe, one of many excellent startups in the space).

If companies will invest, if the UK government will pay people to swap their cars and vans for e-cargo bikes, there must surely be scope to at least examine the concept in Hong Kong? Such a trial, including a hub and Green Loading Zones, would be a genuine innovation and far outshine the humdrum “New Energy Transport Fund”, which basically funds electric vans.

Our government’s work on e-mobility has not even started. It has pandered to the auto lobby and to trendy e-scooter leisure start-ups yet ignored the actual situation – for example, food delivery riders in Hong Kong now overwhelmingly use e-bikes, but using them to deliver to or from a restaurant or home not directly on a cycle track would remain illegal under the proposed laws. There are many issues with the government’s inaction, including dangerous riding and dangerous machines. Keeping them illegal on the roads will not solve anything.

There’s hope that the “new” areas of the artificial islands and the Northern Metropolis might address some issues. But this, too, is a trap. Leaving all the “innovation” to the new areas is to leave the existing urban transport network to decay and fester. In any case, given the quality of the trial consultations so far it’s not obvious that the cycle tracks in these new areas will be up to the job or serve anyone apart from drivers.

To go forward, we need leadership from the government. It’s insane that Transport Department gave the first Tesla Model S (left hand drive) an “experimental” approval to drive on the public roads around Cyberport for three months, yet will not extend the same courtesy to a quality e-cargo bike which is in active use by top logistic brands in the world.

There’s no hope for the current e-mobility process taking any new ideas on board, but with the right pressure perhaps the government could be convinced to at least look at e-transport and logistics afresh, to set up a task force to consider the green loading zones, hubs and e-bike solutions as something different from “e-mobility” and as something essential to a sustainable transport network.

Categories: Opinion, Transit

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