Video/Words: Night Riders

Daytime in Hong Kong is characterised by pressure and long hours at work, conspiring to leave little room for reflection.

At night, the city truly comes alive, and as the formality of daytime melts away, street life is carried by a new cast until sunrise: The waiter at an all-night congee shop, eccentric taxi driver, hopeless drunk, friendly 7-11 cashier, insomniac, or newspaper seller, and people pursuing their own hobbies and interests.

One type of person you’ll see is the urban bicyclist.

Having lived in Causeway Bay for eight years, I’d always see bicyclists riding up and down tram lines at all hours of night, taking advantage of the relative tranquillity, armed with a ‘can-do’ attitude.

Hughes Lau and Queenie Chu started Bike The Moment in 2012 with the aim of experiencing and sharing the ‘hidden’ city at night. For a fee, they will provide bikes and equipment and take people around the city in the middle of the night with various routes between Sai Wan Ho and Kennedy Town that can range up to 23km. “We love biking and wondered why it was not popular on Hong Kong Island, so we started a group to share the happiness of biking,” says Lau.

It’s difficult to estimate the number of bicyclists in Hong Kong due to the lack of figures on the subject. A 2004 study by the Transport Department showed that out of 12.3 million “mechanised” trips per day in Hong Kong, around 62,000 involve cycling. At a Legislative Council panel in November 2011 the Hong Kong Cycling Alliance said there are more than one million bicycles in Hong Kong, citing a 2009 Sha Tin District Council study showing 150,000 bicyclists in that area alone.

Clearly more research is needed to determine the number of bicyclists in Hong Kong, particularly if the will and the need is there to develop a cycling network for non-recreational purposes.

The government has made major strides to promote recreational biking paths in the New Territories, and is developing a 104 km network in the New Territories covering Tuen Mun to Ma On Shan, and the Tsuen Wan to Tuen Mun. Nevertheless, these developments, according to Secretary for Development Paul Chan, have a sporting and recreational focus to them.

When it comes to cycling on roads in busy urban areas, recent questions by the Hong Kong Tourism Representative Yiu Si Wing regarding a proposed waterfront cycling route were met with ambivalent answers by Anthony Cheung, Secretary of Transport and Housing. As a result, the Hong Kong Cycling Alliance has accused the department of failing to address the needs of urban cyclists.

The alliance canvassed these issues at this year’s 1 July democracy rally, saying in a press release: “All kinds of us use bikes for all kinds of reasons and we’re tired of being pushed to the side of policymaking and told ‘keep out of the way of the important people’… Why does (sic) Transport Dept still deny that lots of Hong Kong people ride bikes to go places, even as our neighbours and many other countries are developing the role of functional cycling in a modern city?”

Outside of designated recreation bicycling zones in the New Territories, the environment is hostile for bicyclists. To highlight the challenges, Facebook advocacy group Share the Road Hong Kong encourages users to report incidents. One such post on 19 January 2012 reads: “Irate male in Black Golf convertible… Horn abuse, before overtaking. The finger after overtaking, and verbal abuse when challenged. TCU and police reports submitted.” Users on this group and other cycling forums have accused the police and government of taking the side of drivers. Meanwhile, a November 2013 government press release on safe cycling stated the need to “crack down on cycling offences.”

The issue of drivers’ lack of respect for urban bicyclists has come to a fore in a high profile way; Hong Kong Cycling Alliance chairman Martin Turner was involved in a road incident in 2011 with former senior assistant police commissioner Spencer Foo Tsun-kong that went to court. This incident was preceded by a tragedy in 2005 that saw racing cyclist Brendan Chiu Hsiu-hon killed in a collision with a minibus during a competition.

The government could consider widening roads for cyclists, suggested Christine Loh, Under Secretary for the Environment, while she was CEO of think tank Civic Exchange.  “Instead of widening roads for more cars, Hong Kong can see what happens if we widen roads for cyclists and pedestrians,” Loh was quoted as saying in Time Out Hong Kong in 2012.

According to the government, there were 2,118 bicycle accidents in the first ten months of 2013, with seven fatalities. In 2012 there were nine deaths and 2,442 accidents involving cyclists, based on Transport Department statistics. To highlight this issue there is an annual Ride of Silence event, which this year took place in May and saw more than 1,000 participants from Hong Kong.

Bike The Moment’s Lau says riding at night in Hong Kong Island is safe due to a lack of traffic, but stresses the need to follow traffic lights and signals. Yet even for groups who are cycling for enjoyment, obstacles can put a stop to the fun. On the night I biked with Lau and Chu, we were forced to walk at several points designated as no biking zones. On top this, the regulations for urban bikers are daunting.

Regardless of these negatives, Bike The Moment are focused on enjoying the simple pleasures that Hong Kong’s night has to offer. “We don’t really think a fun experience needs to cost that much,” Lau said in a recent blog post. “Everything that we talk about here can be done by anyone; regardless of your skill level as a biker all you need is a desire to see this city,”  wrote Lau.

Inspired by a recent cycling trip to Kyoto and Osaka, Lau says the government could do more for urban cyclists by opening certain pedestrian roads between 10pm and 6am. He also says the government can create a small biking lane on the side of roads, which wouldn’t have to be more than a few feet wide. Both of these initiatives are being used in Japan.

“If we can do this, more people will bike, and it would make a big contribution to our city,” says Lau.