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Friday, March 21, 2014, 09:27
Wheels of justice
By Simon Parry / Focus HK

Wheels of justice

Trevor Leung and Olivia Yeung with their bicycles before the bikes were confiscated in a clearance operation at Tai Wai MTR station. The couple have now started a Facebook page called ‘Who Stole My Bike?’

Parked bicycles are being confiscated by officials at the rate of more than 130 a week in Hong Kong, and owners have little hope of ever getting them back. Fed-up cyclists want an end to the seizures and are considering a legal challenge, reports Simon Parry.

When commuters Trevor Leung and Olivia Yeung trudged out of Tai Wai MTR station at the end of a long day’s work on Hong Kong island to collect their bicycles and pedal the last 15 minutes of their journey home, they were in for a shock.

Their bicycles — left directly beneath a bike parking sign, according to Trevor — had vanished. At first they suspected thieves. Then, as they wandered around looking for traces of their lost property, they found one or two other bikes with notices on them warning of a “clearance action” by officials.

“The notice was from the Home Affairs Department,” said Trevor. “I called it. They couldn’t give us any information and asked us to call another number for the LCSD (Leisure and Cultural Services Department). We called it and said we wanted our bikes back but no one could help us.”

Eventually, in a fruitless chase that led them from government department to government department and later to the ombudsman’s office to try to retrieve their HK$1,500 bicycles, they were told the only way to retrieve them was to bid for them at a government auction.

The problem was the bikes would not be sold individually but most probably in an auction with up to 1,000 other confiscated bikes sold to dealers and scrap merchants. “We were very despondent,” said Trevor. “The whole thing made no sense to us.

“First of all, we were angry because we felt our bikes had been stolen. Then, when we found out more, we decided there was something wrong with what was going on and we decided to do something about it.”

Space invaders

What Trevor and Olivia discovered through their experience in 2011 was that they were not alone. Thousands of parked bicycles are confiscated every year in Hong Kong, either because they have been left for too long in legal spaces or left on government land not allocated for bicycle parking.

A number of government departments organize periodical clearances and once confiscated, the bicycles are often almost impossible to retrieve, cyclists say. They remain piled up in their hundreds in government storage areas before being sold off at auction or as scrap metal.

The Transport Department acknowledges that the city has a shortage of legal parking spaces for bicycles and says it is doing what it can to create more. In the meantime, however, the clearances continue at a rate of more than 18 bikes a day.

The Lands Department is the biggest confiscator of bicycles, seizing 6,600 in 2010, 7,200 in 2011, 6,600 in 2012 and 6,800 last year and has rebuffed pleas from cycling groups to halt the controversial policy or at least provide a mechanism for people to retrieve their confiscated bikes.

Now, however, a legal challenge against the policy may be around the corner. The Hong Kong Cycling Alliance is taking lawyers’ advice on whether the confiscations — usually conducted under the Land Ordinance on the grounds of unlawful occupation of government land — are strictly legal.

Gathering pace

“It is quite beyond belief,” said alliance chairman Martin Turner. “There aren’t enough parking spaces for bicycles in Hong Kong but in a civilised society, parking your bike in a quiet place where it isn’t in anyone’s way shouldn’t be a crime or a problem.

“Internationally, Hong Kong is at the back of the queue for cycling development, which is to our shame.”

Asked if he would like to see an amnesty to end the bicycle seizures, Turner replied: “I don’t think an amnesty is due. I think an apology is due. I don’t think the government has any right to take these bikes away and using the land law seems grossly inappropriate.

“I don’t accept that bikes parked in areas other than a designated parking spot are illegal and I would like to challenge it legally. It would involve a judicial review. It would have to be a test case based on the wrong law being applied.”

The Land Ordinance, the alliance argues, is primarily intended to stop squatters or people illegally using land for development. It gives the government the right to confiscate and dispose of any property placed on that land.

However, the alliance believes the way the law is being applied is in breach of Article 105 of the Basic Law, which stipulates the Hong Kong government must “protect the right of individuals and legal persons to the acquisition, use, disposal and inheritance of property and their right to compensation for lawful deprivation of their property”.

The Transport Department — which claims to be trying to make Hong Kong a “bicycle friendly” city — declined requests from China Daily for an interview on the subject of the bicycle confiscations and its policy for cycling in the city.

The department has confiscated more than 900 bicycles from public transport interchanges it manages from 2010 to 2013 but insists it is working hard to provide more parking spaces and provisions for cyclists across the city.

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