Commuters ride bicycles, mopeds and electric bicyc.
(photo credit: AP)
It's a simple pleasure, but Xu Beilu savors it
daily: gliding past snarled traffic on her motorized bicycle, relaxed
and sweat-free alongside the pedal-pushing masses.
China, the world's bicycle kingdom - one for every three inhabitants - is going electric.
Workers weary of crammed public transport or pedaling long
distances to jobs are upgrading to battery-powered bikes and scooters.
Even some who can afford cars are ditching them for electric
two-wheelers to avoid traffic jams and expensive gasoline.
The bicycle was a vivid symbol of China in more doctrinaire
communist times, when almost no one owned a car. Even now, nearly
twenty years after the country began its great leap into capitalism, it
still has 430 million bicycles by government count, outnumbering
electric bikes and scooters 7-1.
But production of electric two-wheelers has soared
from fewer than 200,000 eight years ago to 22 million last year, mostly
for the domestic market. The industry estimates about 65 million are on
Car sales are also booming but there are still only 24 million
for civilian use, because few of the 1.3 billion population are able to
afford them. And unlike in many other developing countries, Chinese
cities still have plenty of bicycle lanes, even if some have made way
for cars and buses.
"E-bike" riders are on the move in the morning or
late at night, in good weather or bad. When it's wet, they are a
rainbow army in plastic capes. On fine days, women don gloves,
long-sleeved white aprons and face-covering sun guards.
One of them is Xu, on her Yamaha e-bike, making the half-hour
commute from her apartment to her job as a marketing manager. She had
thought of buying a car but dropped the idea. "It's obvious that
driving would be more comfortable, but it's expensive," she says.
"I like riding my e-bike during rush hour, and sometimes enjoy
a laugh at the people stuck in taxis. It's so convenient and helpful in
Shanghai, since the traffic is worse than ever."
The trend is catching on in the US and elsewhere.
In Japan, plug-in bicycles are favored by cost-conscious
companies and older commuters. "Many company workers are beginning to
use them to visit clients instead of driving, to save fuel costs," says
Miyuki Kimizuka of the Japan Bicycle Promotion Institute, a private
Australians use electric bicycles in rural towns without bus
and train service. Tony Morgan, managing director of The Electric
Bicycle Co. Pty. Ltd., the continent's largest manufacturer and
retailer of e-bikes, says he has sold about 20,000 in the past decade,
priced at 1,000-2,000 Australian dollars (about $800-$1,600).
In the Netherlands, an especially bicycle-friendly country, the industry says sales passed 138,800 last year.
In India, Vietnam and other developing countries, competition
from motorcycles, as well as a lack of bike lanes and other
infrastructure, are obstacles.
Indian sales have risen about 15 percent a year to 130,000
units, thanks in part to a 7,500 rupee ($150) government rebate that
brings the cost down to about the cost of a conventional bicycle. But
they are far outnumbered by the millions of new motorcycles taking to
In China, electric bikes sell for 1,700 yuan to 3,000 yuan
($250 to $450). They require no helmet, plates or driver's license, and
they aren't affected by restrictions many cities impose on fuel-burning
It costs a mere 1 yuan (15 US cents) - about the same as the
cheapest bus fare - to charge a bike for a day's use, says Guo
Jianrong, head of the Shanghai Bicycle Association, an industry group.
They look like regular bicycles, only a bit heavier with the
battery strapped on. Some can be pedaled; others run solely on battery.
In China, their maximum weight is about 40 kilograms, and maximum legal
speed is about 20 kph.
"For us, these are tools for transportation," Guo said. "We're
not like Americans and Europeans, who tend to bicycle for fun or
The e-bike doesn't emit greenhouse gases, though it uses
electricity from power plants that do. The larger concern is the health
hazards from production, recycling and disposal of lead-acid batteries.
Although China is beginning to turn out more electric bikes
equipped with nickel-meter-hydride and lithium-ion batteries, 98% run
on lead-acid types, says Guo.
A bike can use up to five of the batteries in its lifetime,
according to Christopher Cherry, a professor at the University of
Tennessee at Knoxville who researches the industry. A Chinese-made
battery containing 10 kg. of lead can generate nearly seven kg. of lead
pollution, he says.
"Electric bikes result in far more emissions of lead than
automobiles. They always use more batteries per mile [1.6 kilometers]
than almost any other vehicle," Cherry said in a phone interview.
In China, owners are paid about 200 yuan ($30) to recycle old
batteries, but the work is often done in small, under-regulated
workshops. With price competition brutal among China's 2,300 electric
bike and scooter makers, manufacturers have shied away from embracing
costlier, cleaner technology. But bigger foreign sales and demand for
better batteries may speed improvements.
"We are trying to upgrade to lithium-battery technology to be
able to sell internationally," said Hu Gang, a spokesman for Xinri
E-Vehicle Group Co., the country's biggest e-bike manufacturer, with
sales of more than 2 million units last year.
The goal is to boost production to more than 5 million units by 2013, he said.
"It's not that we're that ambitious," Hu said. "It's just that the industry is growing so quickly."