[Response from two Singaporean residents is added at the end of this article on March 3.]
Bikeshare companies in Hong Kong seize every opportunity to attract riders, even when Hong Kongers are busy celebrating the Chinese New Year. ofo, one of the providers, is rolling out free riding promotion. My observation is that more yellow bikes are moving around.
While more people enjoy cycling, not everyone is happy about the growth of the bikeshare industry. Other cities suffer from flooding of dockless bikes and my city is not immune to it. The government is criticized for being too lenient in regulating the industry. I hope my article can illustrate Hong Kong’s situation and trigger cross-city discussion.
Nowhere to hide
The size of Hong Kong — some 1,100 square kilometers — is actually not that small as you may think; it is greater than Singapore, Taipei city, Osaka, and New York City. But the amount of flat land (which enables smooth cycling) is only 550 square kilometers, which is around the size of 45 Heathrow Airports.
Since the first bikeshare company gobee.bike entered Hong Kong in April 2017, the industry has been growing rapidly. Five more competitors (ofo, locobike, Ketch’up Bike, HobaBike, oBike) have entered the ring, with thousands of shared bikes moving around streets or parking at roadsides. Don’t forget there are estimated 347,000 bicycles before these companies exist.
Passages got blocked
Two big problems that shrouded bikeshare in the beginning were vandalism and insecurity in electronic payment. These problems were somehow fixed or less frequently mentioned. Instead, people are now more annoyed by misplaced shared bikes.
There are indeed legal public outdoor parking spaces, and quite a number of shared bikes are parked there. But due to their dockless nature, people will leave bikes where they end the journey. Indeed, these operators’ utmost concern is on convenience, rather than responsibility: the easier people can get bikes, the easier the operators can gain profit.
Needless to say, those shared bikes obstruct pavements and cycle tracks. Even illegal parking exists long before bikeshare companies do, the situation is getting worse these days.
Taking advantage of public parking space
Parking shared bikes at public parking space causes disputes, too. The space is designated for personal bikes only, which, of course, excludes commercial use. People argue that if the government does not allow unlicensed street hawkers, why tolerate for-profit bikeshare providers using up public places for free?
Bike rental shops under threat
Perhaps the strongest opponents against bike sharing are in-store bike rental shops. Since 1970s, cycle track networks and bicycle parking facilities have been built as part of the new town development in the New Territories. We see bike rental shops along the cycle tracks. They offer rental service to holiday riders dedicated to see the hillside and coastline scenery along Tolo Harbour, or immerse themselves in the green rural region. The shops also sell bicycles to individuals.
The rise of bikeshare companies poses a real threat to bike rental shops. Although the quality of some brands of shared bikes is not as good as rented bikes, such as no shift in gears or seat level, bike rental shops are widely defeated for one key feature: not flexible enough. They require riders to return bikes at fixed locations. In contrast, riders can leave shared bikes at their convenience. Some bike rental operators expect their shops to close soon.
Operators are doing something, but impact remains to be seen
Before discussing how the government should intervene, we should understand what bikeshare companies do to manage their bikes. They do employ balancers to redistribute bikes, check and repair defective bikes, and inspect other problems in operation.
Some providers claim to have appropriate measures to avoid indiscriminate parking. For example, HobaBike mentions that their bikes have installed geo-fencing system which prohibits riders to park at emergency spots. Ketch’up Bike also declares that their bikes are equipped with sensors which would not stop charging fees unless users park at permitted areas. ofo, on the other hand, relies on citizens’ report.
I asked a few users in a facebook group and they told me somewhat different stories. One user said he saw Ketch’up bikes being parked indiscriminately, and thus questioned whether such measures really work.
New problems, old laws
Until now, Hong Kong government deals with the nascent bikeshare problem with old laws. Worse still, it appears that the level of enforcement is so weak that affected citizens get irritated.
In a recent reply to lawmakers, the government reinstated laws that handle illegal parking of bikes, ‘be they conventional non-automated rental, automated rental, or privately-owned ones’. In other words, one size fits all.
Pursuant to the Road Traffic (Parking) Regulations (Cap 374C), no person shall park a vehicle (including a bicycle) in non-designated parking places; nor shall he or she park a vehicle in a parking place for a continuous period of more than 24 hours. In addition, the Land (Miscellaneous Provisions) Ordinance (Cap 28) prohibits unlawful occupation of unleased Government land, whereas the Summary Offences Ordinance (Cap 228) prohibits people from leaving any article that may obstruct, inconvenience or endanger any person or vehicle.
Different government departments have their enforcement role in removing illegal bike parking:
Transport Department: to clear bicycles illegally parked at covered public transport interchanges;
District Lands Offices: to clear bicycles illegally occupying unleased Government land;
Hong Kong Police Force: to remove bicycles which may pose immediate danger to road users.
District Offices: to coordinate joint operations with relevant departments to clear the black spots of illegally parked bicycles or misplaced articles.
However, the authority admits that in the second half of 2017, of the 28,697 notices on removal of illegally parked bicycles were issued, 5,876 illegally parked bicycles were removed, of which only 303 were automated rental bicycles. The quantity is trivial compared to thousands of irresponsible parking bikes every day.
Weak enforcement with loophole
Besides law enforcement, the government states that bikeshare operators agreed to improve their service, such as displaying conspicuously a hotline so that the public can lodge complaints in case of indiscriminate parking, and introduce a concession scheme to reward responsible riders. Moreover, the government expresses deep concern over expansion of bikeshare service in urban areas where the traffic is heavy and cycling facilities are insufficient. It is reported that HobaBike was asked by the Transport Department to recall its service in Hong Kong Island.
One obvious loophole in the enforcement process is that bikeshare companies can move the bikes out of where they got caught within the notice period, or simply tear off the notice document. Then the government staff cannot remove the bikes and needs to restart the enforcement action.
Rethink regulation, not ban
We’ve reached the era of smart mobility; plus, the government is fostering a bike-friendly environment, including promoting cycling for short-distance commuting and connection with mass transport. There is no reason for the government to ban bikeshare outright. On the contrary, the government should incorporate bikeshare into transport policy while ensuring public safety.
Pay for public parking? Designated parking areas? Franchise?
Responding to concern over letting dockless bikeshare companies to make money in public spaces, the government can require each operator to charge for utilizing public spaces. The amount can be calculated by the number of bikes on the street. Alternatively, it is suggested that the government can set up paid parking spaces for shared bikes (similar to roadside metered parking spaces for private vehicles).
Public authorities and owners of private buildings can consider providing spaces next to railway stations, bus stops, schools, or shopping centers, to park shared bikes. This can both formalize connection points and regulate parking areas.
Some commentators propse that offering one company exclusive service in one region. Users who travel to another region need to pay extra fee. However, this faces one immediate challenge: stronger, more solid players are not easy to give up business in profitable regions. Indeed, their goal is just to dominate the whole pie. Even smaller players which currently focus on their business in one or two districts will consider expanding their business. It is hard to foresee such a policy to be implemented in the short term.
Having said that, I do agree that unless designated bike lanes are available, or restricted to cetain regions at a certain time range, bikeshare should not be allowed to exist in urban Hong Kong. Riders can hardly squeeze through pedestrians and cars on streets and roads, such as Kowloon and northern and southern parts of Hong Kong Island, as well as south Lantau Island.
Singapore’s response: MOU between government and operators
Singapore may offer a possible answer to Hong Kong: negotiating with new and existing bikeshare companies. Like Hong Kong, the Lion City has multiple bikeshare operators. Bikeshare is increasing popular among their people, and vandalism and indiscriminate parking are also commonplace. But their government seems to be more proactive in regulating the industry and ensure public safety.
Last October, the Land and Transport Authorities of Singapore signed an MOU with five bikeshare operators, including Obike which provides service in Hong Kong. The authority dedicated 4,000 yellow boxes around public housing estates, parks and railway station connection points to accommodate shared bikes. This means turning bikeshare service from dockless to somehow with fixed locations. It’s still more flexible than Taipei’s YouBike program since the latter involves docking stations.
In return, the companies agreed to remove illegally-parked bikes within half a day, repair faulty bikes within one day, provide public liability insurance for users, and adopt geo-fencing technology. According to the LTA, geo-fencing ‘would enable the operators to know whether their bicycles have been parked within designated bicycle parking zones’.
What if an MOU in Hong Kong? Maybe…but don’t put too much hope
Hong Kong government has not ruled out bikeshare, but shows no sign in coordinating the industry. If the government is determined to regulate the market, I expect anagreement, but the scope and power of regulation are likely to be less extensive than Singapore’s.
To me, the most important term in the MOU is the compulsory release of riders’ trip data to the LTA to facilitate the planning of active mobility infrastructure. In Hong Kong, most public transport operators resist in sharing transit data to the government, not to mention sharing to the public. The issue of data protection will hardly be within the scope of discussion.
At present, the most obvious problem of dockless bikeshare in Hong Kong is companies taking advantage of public parking space and causing disruption. A less focused but deeper concern is how the companies (and potentially the government) handle user data. I believe the economic and social costs can be balanced with a more pro-active regulation from the government. Turning dockless into docked bikeshare could help, provided that the docks are comprehensive enough. Moreover, operators should have appropriate incentive and punitive measures regarding riders’ behaviour. Riders should take care of others and not to abuse the convenience of dockless service.
Bikeshare is an alternative of short-distance commuting. The companies are looking for ways to be profitable (such as making use of riding data and riders’ profile to develop new products and services), but even those companies run out of funds and are closed down, local government or civic groups, if visionary enough, will succeed and create community-oriented bikeshare programs.
If you’re a Singaporean, can you inform us whether the MOU is working well? If bikeshare also exists in your city, let us know what you think!
PS: There has been a long debate over whether the current mode of bikeshare is really a member of sharing economy. I tend to think it’s still bike rental in nature, as the operator is still the final owner of, and responsible for managing the bikes. We can only call the program bikeshare when ownership of the bikes is held at individuals and the bikes are shared to others when idle. But since many many many writers refer corporate-owned of bike rental to bikeshare, I follow the convention.
After publishing my article, two Singapore residents expressed their views.
The first one was a regular bikeshare user but now turns to e-scooter. He admitted that the yellow boxes and penalty did reduced illegal parking somehow, especially at bus stops.
The government fined the operators in cash, but the operators fine the riders by credit, so they don’t get hurt.
He also told me that while one of the brands will suspend riders’ account for illegal parking, riders can get around the punishment by simply opening a new account to continue cycling.
The other rider is a big fan of cycling. He even picks up damaged bikes to respective companies and carries scattered rental bikes into proper spaces out of his own pocket. It’s somewhat strange that an individual has taken up the job of the government. He is somehow desperate of government’s commitment in regulating bikeshare firms.
He said the country is stepping towards a carlite society. The MOU is a first step of regulation, but the progress is not good. Only one of the firms installed some geo-fencing technique at some HDB areas.
Early February, the Senior Minister of State for Transport of Singapore admitted that the MOU has not worked well (see the report by the Strait Times). The government will step up enforcement by rolling out a licensing framework, which requires operators to remove timely removal of improperly parked bikes and penalizes irresponsible users. But the government defends bikeshare because it can lead the country to a carlite society, as what the second respondent says.
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