E-China: The bicycle kingdom is going electric

Commuters ride bicycles, mopeds and electric bicyc (photo credit: AP)
Commuters ride bicycles, mopeds and electric bicyc
(photo credit: AP)
It's a simple pleasure, but Xu Beilu savors itdaily: gliding past snarled traffic on her motorized bicycle, relaxedand 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 longdistances to jobs are upgrading to battery-powered bikes and scooters.Even some who can afford cars are ditching them for electrictwo-wheelers to avoid traffic jams and expensive gasoline.

The bicycle was a vivid symbol of China in more doctrinairecommunist times, when almost no one owned a car. Even now, nearlytwenty years after the country began its great leap into capitalism, itstill has 430 million bicycles by government count, outnumberingelectric bikes and scooters 7-1.

But production of electric two-wheelers has soaredfrom fewer than 200,000 eight years ago to 22 million last year, mostlyfor the domestic market. The industry estimates about 65 million are onChinese roads.

Car sales are also booming but there are still only 24 millionfor civilian use, because few of the 1.3 billion population are able toafford them. And unlike in many other developing countries, Chinesecities still have plenty of bicycle lanes, even if some have made wayfor cars and buses.

"E-bike" riders are on the move in the morning orlate at night, in good weather or bad. When it's wet, they are arainbow 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-hourcommute from her apartment to her job as a marketing manager. She hadthought of buying a car but dropped the idea. "It's obvious thatdriving would be more comfortable, but it's expensive," she says.

"I like riding my e-bike during rush hour, and sometimes enjoya laugh at the people stuck in taxis. It's so convenient and helpful inShanghai, 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-consciouscompanies and older commuters. "Many company workers are beginning touse them to visit clients instead of driving, to save fuel costs," saysMiyuki Kimizuka of the Japan Bicycle Promotion Institute, a privateindustry group.

Australians use electric bicycles in rural towns without busand train service. Tony Morgan, managing director of The ElectricBicycle Co. Pty. Ltd., the continent's largest manufacturer andretailer 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, competitionfrom motorcycles, as well as a lack of bike lanes and otherinfrastructure, are obstacles.

Indian sales have risen about 15 percent a year to 130,000units, thanks in part to a 7,500 rupee ($150) government rebate thatbrings the cost down to about the cost of a conventional bicycle. Butthey are far outnumbered by the millions of new motorcycles taking toIndia's roadways.

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, andthey aren't affected by restrictions many cities impose on fuel-burningtwo-wheelers.

It costs a mere 1 yuan (15 US cents) - about the same as thecheapest bus fare - to charge a bike for a day's use, says GuoJianrong, head of the Shanghai Bicycle Association, an industry group.

They look like regular bicycles, only a bit heavier with thebattery strapped on. Some can be pedaled; others run solely on battery.In China, their maximum weight is about 40 kilograms, and maximum legalspeed is about 20 kph.

"For us, these are tools for transportation," Guo said. "We'renot like Americans and Europeans, who tend to bicycle for fun orexercise."

The e-bike doesn't emit greenhouse gases, though it useselectricity from power plants that do. The larger concern is the healthhazards from production, recycling and disposal of lead-acid batteries.

Although China is beginning to turn out more electric bikesequipped with nickel-meter-hydride and lithium-ion batteries, 98% runon 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 ofTennessee at Knoxville who researches the industry. A Chinese-madebattery containing 10 kg. of lead can generate nearly seven kg. of leadpollution, he says.

"Electric bikes result in far more emissions of lead thanautomobiles. 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 oldbatteries, but the work is often done in small, under-regulatedworkshops. With price competition brutal among China's 2,300 electricbike and scooter makers, manufacturers have shied away from embracingcostlier, cleaner technology. But bigger foreign sales and demand forbetter batteries may speed improvements.

"We are trying to upgrade to lithium-battery technology to beable to sell internationally," said Hu Gang, a spokesman for XinriE-Vehicle Group Co., the country's biggest e-bike manufacturer, withsales 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."