120 Million Electric Bicycles In China: Boon or Bane?

Katie Melua sang about “9 million bicycles in Beijing” in a catchy yet irritating song that replays relentless in your head; perhaps s...

Katie Melua sang about “9 million bicycles in Beijing” in a catchy yet irritating song that replays relentless in your head; perhaps she should revise the song lyrics to “there are 120 million electric bikes in China” considering the increasing popularity of the motorised 2-wheelers. According to estimates, 1 out of 5 bicycles in China has a battery, and the numbers are higher in urban areas.

Identity crisis: bicycle or motorcycle?
image: ilovebikes.com

Besides being an exhaust-fumeless way to travel, so it does not further contribute to the already polluted roads of China, electric bikes actually took off in a big way during the SARS epidemic, and citizens were desperately searching for an affordable yet individualised mode of transportation. The e-bikes cost about USD300 to 500 each.

Meanwhile, more and more Chinese have been opting to drive cars than ride conventional bicycles. In 2005, there was only an average of 1.1 bicycles for each household, after a 42% decrease since 1995. Contrariwise, between 1998 to 2008, the number of cars owned by the Chinese grew from 4 million to 35 million, a 775% increase in only a decade. Despite the astounding growth in car ownership, some believe that electric bicycles had helped curb the growth, which could have been even more. According to Professor Christopher Cherry, a Civil and Environmental Engineering expert from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, 1 in 5 riders of electric bike in China would have been car drivers, if the motorised 2-wheeler had not been an option.
Yet, before the Chinese start feeling grateful for their electric bikes, this latest mode of transportation has its share of troubles. Electric bicycles accounted for 15% of traffic accidents in Shenzen, in year 2011, and they were subsequently banned in the city. In Beijing, they were banned and then unbanned. In Guangzhou, they are banned, but enforcement is at the whim of the police. Authorities cannot seem to decide whether to treat them like bicycles or motorcycles: riders do not require a license and there is no age limit for its usage, yet some e-bikes can go up to 50km/h but with a braking system intended for pedaling speed.

There are also environmental concerns regarding the manufacturing of the bikes’ batteries.

Other countries are also facing the same conundrum. Other Asian countries have also embraced the lazy way of biking. In Vietnam, parents purchase the electric bikes for their children to ride to school, despite a pricetag double the conventional bicycle. But it is not uncommon to see 3 or 4 young passengers on the bike at the same time, without safety helmets. Accidents and fatalities of such riders are also not uncommon.

The uptake in European countries has been slow but not nonexistent. In Netherlands, one third of spending on bicycles is on the electric version. In Rome, Vespa has begun to watch their tail as electric bikes begin to trespass on their market share. Yet, even in countries with arguably better regulated roads, there are still dilemmas as to how to regard these vehicles – should they use the bicycle paths or the roads? New York decided to just ban them…twice, with a second ordinance that made it even more unlawful to whiz around the Big Apple on an electric bicycle.

Still, the industry is expected to flourish, with a million units expected to be manufactured globally every year until 2020. Sing a new song of the electric bicycles, Katie Melua.

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