China, the bicycle kingdom, takes to electric bikes

Pedalling the powered path

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 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 Chinese roads.

Car sales are also booming but there are still only 24 million for civilian use, because few of the 1.3 billion population can 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. The trend is catching on in the US and elsewhere. In Japan, plug-in bicycles are favoured by cost-conscious companies and older commuters.

Australians use electric bicycles in rural towns without bus and train service. In the Netherlands, an especially bicycle-friendly country, the industry says sales passed 138,800 last year.

India lacks bike lanes

In India, Vietnam and other developing countries, competition from motorcycles, as well as lack of bike lanes and other infrastructure, are obstacles. Indian sales have risen about 15 per cent a year to 130,000 units, thanks in part to a Rs 7,500 ($150) government rebate that brings the cost down to about the cost of conventional bicycle.

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 two-wheelers.

It costs a mere 1 yuan (15 US cents) — about the same as cheapest bus fare — to charge a bike for a day’s use, says Guo Jianrong, Head of Shanghai Bicycle Association, an industry group.

They look like regular bicycles, only a bit heavier with battery strapped on. Some can be pedaled; others run solely on battery. The e-bike doesn’t emit greenhouse gases, though it uses electricity from power plants that do. The larger concern is 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 per cent run on lead-acid types, says Guo. In China, owners are paid about 200 yuan ($30) to recycle old batteries but the work is often done in small, under-regulated workshops.

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