Free the trails

“There are an estimated 10,000 mountain bikers using an extremely limited number of legal trails half of which are covered in concrete. As a result of the limited trail-accessed trails, you have user conflicts”. So says Bob Smith, Chairman of Hong Kong Mountain Biking Association.

Most of those conflicts are between hikers and bikers. Though the majority of members of both communities exercise a reasonable degree of tolerance in such cases, problems do occur.

The frustrating thing for Smith and his fellow bikers is that often these conflicts wouldn’t arise if the trail system they have to ride on was in any way sufficient for the number of users wanting access to it.

“We have put forth simple solutions to the trail access problem to AFCD”, he says. “We have performed in-field studies, suggesting the opening of trails within the park that are little used or not used by anyone. By opening up more trails we would alleviate the pressure on an already over-burdened network.”

At present Hong Kong has 10 legal mountain bike trails. That limited number is a problem already, but even access to these is often not easy. There are no complete circuits, just point-to-point rides; sometimes access is down trails which are not open to bikers leading to transgressions and confrontations with the authorities.

The main government body involved is the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) whose job it is to look after the trails in the country parks of Hong Kong.

The Tai Lam/Tai Mo Shan area has been an area of particular focus because the majority of legal kilometres of trail are found here. The HKMBA believes that opening a relatively small number of existing trails to bikers, the access to the area and the volume of users it could safely handle would both be much enhanced.

In this they have found an unlikely ally. Teacher Flora Cheung’s late husband had been a biker and he had been trying to get the district council interested in supporting the idea of improving trail access.

Since his death, she has picked up the cause even though she is not a biker and only rarely hikes. Asked why, she simply says: “Everyone wants to make the community more harmonious, make things better.”

Gaining the ear of councillor Li Kwai Fong, the two women visited the area to see for themselves what the sport was about. Together they have pushed forward specific proposals for better trail access now currently under consideration by the AFCD, as well as by the Water Supplies Department who also have jurisdiction in this location.

“I believe that they [the local AFCD officers] really want to solve the problem”, says Cheung. “But it is not in their authority to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’.” They must pass on their recommendations to a board to review and it is here where things are presently stuck.

Smith paints it more bluntly: “All we hear are excuses.” When he has asked AFCD for their reasons to deny HKMBA’s requests he has been told that the department lack the funds and manpower to maintain extra trails and that any change in this situation will take years.

HKMBA has offered to assist AFCD with maintaining trails on a voluntary basis but were denied. “We have acted in good faith with AFCD and gone to great lengths to come up with solutions that will work for everyone”, says Smith. “All around the world mountain bikers work in harmony with park managers, not only maintaining but building new trail systems, but not in Hong Kong.”

Happily, the Tai Lam area is not the only front that HKMBA has opened in their campaign. They are also working in South Lantau and there at least the biking community have been recognised as a legitimate recreational user of land which is, after all, zoned for recreational use.

The Civil Engineering and Development Department (CEDD) awarded engineers Scott Wilson the contract for the South Lantau Mountain Bike Feasibility Study. The study calls for an extensive network of trails to supplement and link existing trails.

This was an exciting development for bikers but a contributor to the HKMBA website expressed a commonly-held view that: “As always AFCD has a critical role to play in this project as the trails will be in AFCD-managed territory and as always they will attempt to limit mountain biking as much as they can. This is why it is important that interested parties make their voices heard and make sure AFCD doesn’t thwart the project as they have done in other parks.”

Smith confirms that since that was written, the project has indeed been much reduced in scope. “AFCD have watered it right down to one small connector and the reconfiguration of an already useable trail.”

He and others like him believe Hong Kong has the potential to be a biking centre in the region, even attracting biking tourists. But the visions of experts have not enticed the civil servants out of their entrenched positions. Some of the community’s greatest hopes now rest with a non-biking teacher who just wants to do the right thing for the greatest number of people.