Innovation in electric bicycles


The electric bike is powered by batteries which don't contribute to the haze of pollution casting a pall over most Chinese cities

CHINA HAS gone crazy for electric bicycles – they are far and away the biggest selling form of transport on the streets, with 120 million of the battery-powered two-wheelers whizzing up and down the thoroughfares.

All over China you see them – migrant workers heading to the building sites on their e-bikes, traders carrying their wares stacked onto small flat-beds at the back, bureaucrats and office workers zipping around on them and increasingly foreigners avoiding the nightmare of the taxi queue.

Faster than a regular bike and cheaper than oil-consuming motorbikes and cars, riders are not required to have a licence and they do not need to get insurance or do annual check-ups like other drivers.

China’s love affair with the bicycle is well-documented, but massive urbanisation and the country’s transformation into the world’s biggest car market has put pressure on the traditional two-wheeler.

The electric bike has been a phenomenon in China, and it is extremely practical. Much has been made of China’s bid to become a manufacturer of electric cars, but the electric two-wheeler is already there. You can pedal or use as a battery-powered vehicle on longer journeys. Beijing has 700,000 electric bicycles alone.

The electric bike is environmentally friendly – powered by batteries which don’t contribute to the yellow haze of pollution casting a pall over most Chinese cities. They can travel around 100km on a full charge, more than enough for a day’s cycling. And they’re convenient, with many apartment buildings have areas where bikers can plug in their “e-bikes” overnight to charge. And they cost around a tenth of the cost of a pair of pants.

Although they are a massively popular with consumers, regulators dislike them and see them as road safety hazards. Traffic police officers complain that electric bikes and their riders are not trained. You don’t need a licence to ride one and they are exempt from registration fees, which police say makes them unable to enforce traffic regulations.

A statement from the traffic management authority in Beijing’s Yizhuang district is typical of the official view. “Many electric-powered bicycles don’t have number plates and so cyclists can escape after committing hit-and-run accidents,” the traffic management division said.

Several cities in southern China, such as Shenzhen and Guangzhou, where electric bicycles are the most popular form of transportation, have tried unsuccessfully to ban the vehicles, usually for safety reasons, but their sheer practicality makes them too popular.

The State Standardisation Administration came up with plans to regulate electric-powered bicycles from January 1st, saying the new rules would serve to protect cyclists and pedestrians from being injured by what they call “light motorcycles”. The rules would restrict the speed of e-bikes to 20km/hr and require that they weigh in at less than 40kg. Anything faster or heavier than that would be classed as a conventional motorbike.

The backlash from the e-bike lobby has been so intense that the government agency has backpedaled on its decision amid widespread fears that more than 2,000 e-bike factories, selling 20 million bikes a year, would close and the logistical nightmare of millions of users needing to get licences and insurance for motorbikes.

In an announcement on its website, the administration said that since so-called e-bikes are an emerging industry, “time and caution” were needed when making relevant policies.

The proposals require electric bicycle users to pass driving tests, get insurance and do annual check-ups on the vehicle by the traffic management authorities. “With this rule,” wrote one of China’s leading writers, Han Han, “the majority of the electric bikes will be classified as mopeds or electric motorcycles. The owners will have to pay a lot for licenses and taxes. Electric bikes are silent, with poor braking performance. A lot of electric vehicles are able to run at 50km/h. But it is rare that an electric bike driver kills someone.”

China is expected to sell more than 12 million cars this year, but it is likely to sell 20 million e-bikes, if the trend of the past few years continues. Commentators generally side with the electric bicycles, even if they find it annoying to have them buzzing down the bike lanes.

“Electric bicycles are an environmental-friendly means of transport. With an increasing number of people using them, emissions from cars will be reduced by a great margin. If only for the sake of preventing global warming, they should be encouraged, but the new standards will definitely not do that,” ran one editorial in the China Daily.