Enjoy a (Limited) Ride on a SmartBike

Hong Kong’s skyline has begun to look a little drearier in recent months. The glass and metal columns of the sculptured buildings still reflect brilliantly off the water in Victoria Harbour, but the ominous haze that lingers over our iconic skyscrapers is becoming more frequent, and is no longer contained solely in news reports from our mainland neighbours to the north.

By no means are we at Beijing levels, where residents walk the streets decked out in top of the line face masks, but our increasing poor air quality is cause for worry. Just last month, the government’s Air Quality Health Index registered readings of 10+ – the highest on the scale – in areas on Hong Kong Island and the New Territories.

Many cities around the world have put practices in place to curb the rise in air pollution, from limiting the number of cars allowed in certain areas (the city of Hamburg wants to ban cars completely within the next 20 years) to creating more bicycle lanes to reduce the number of pollution-spewing vehicles on the roads (take a look at Scandinavian countries like Denmark). With Hong Kong’s jam-packed streets and condensed infrastructure, finding the room for bike lanes is a monumental challenge. But a recent cycling scheme that has sprung up in the West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD) could lead the way to a greener Hong Kong.

The SmartBike initiative is a pilot programme launched by the WKCD Authority last year for recreational and leisure use. “SmartBike [has been established] to encourage visitors to use bicycles as a sustainable commuting mode within the WKCD,” says a WKCD Authority spokesperson.

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The West Kowloon promenade provides a lovely view for a bike ride along the water, with 50 bicycles for adults and 30 for children available for rent.

Smartbike West Kowloon Hong Kong

Getting started is easy. Bring your ID (a passport is fine for tourists), hand over HK$50 for a smart card, grab a bike from one of two SmartBike docking stations, and you’re on your way. The card covers a HK$10 handling charge and the rest can be used for an hour of riding along the track (HK$20 per hour). Warning: if you go over your hour by even one minute, you will be charged for another hour.

The bright green and white bicycles are reminiscent of other rental bikes in major cities – sturdy, if a tad bulky, with a handy basket in front for your belongings. But the similarities end there. Unlike rental bike schemes in other parts of the world (London’s “Boris Bikes” come to mind), which have various drop off points and can be taken all over town, SmartBikes are limited to use on a 1.8-kilometre track.

I cycled the track in under five minutes each way. Using up my time quickly became tedious, with repeat turns up and down the route. I was eager to keep on riding and explore the area beyond the park’s perimeters, but that is a no-go. In fact, there is clear signage at each end of the course strictly stating bikes cannot be taken outside the park.

Smartbike West Kowloon Hong Kong

Then there is the issue of rental times. The small window for using the SmartBikes is between 14:00 – 19:00, Monday to Friday, with a little bit more leeway on weekends and public holidays (10:00 – 19:00). You must make your way to the bike rental area by 18:00, when the last ride departs for the day.

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Despite the limitations, the programme has proven successful. “SmartBike service has been well-received by the public since its official launch in mid-April 2014,” says the WKCD. “As of January 31, 2015, there have been a total of 20,217 rentals.”

The authority states the aim of the programme is to encourage visitors to use bicycles as a sustainable commuting mode within the WKCD, but could not say whether or not there would be plans to expand the service throughout the city in the future.

Most of the bikes were in use when I went on a pleasant mid-week day. The majority of people riding were doing so at a leisurely pace, stopping frequently along the track to take photos of the harbour view on one side and Hong Kong’s tallest building, the International Commerce Centre, on the other.

Thankfully the bikes come equipped with a bell, so you can alert those pausing on the route as you pass, but this isn’t the best place to get a cycling workout. And if you’re looking for a way to pedal around Hong Kong, SmartBike isn’t going to cut it just yet. Let’s hope that with a little more blue sky thinking from the government, we might see some more bikes on Hong Kong streets in the future.

For more details on SmartBike, visit the website.

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