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Monday, October 4, 2010

China’s E-Bike Revolution

A Typical Buffered Bike Lane in China
A Typical Buffered Bike Lane in China

   You may be wondering why the first post on what bills itself as a motorcycle blog is about e-bikes and electric scooters, and the answer is the two are ubiquitous here in China. E-bike sales went from 40,000 in 1998 to 10 million in 2005 according to a study by Jonathan Weinert of University of California Davis’ Institute of Transportation Studies.
Construction workers can be seen toting copper pipes and toolboxes on e-bikes as well as businessmen carrying briefcases and military officers in pristine uniforms. While e-bikes in one form have carved out a niche on New York City streets, those vehicles usually consist of a battery strapped directly below the seat of a traditional bike frame. Although, e-bikes in China can theoretically be pedaled, running on human power is the exception and their design reflects this. They are designed to look more like a moped than a bicycle, while the electric scooters mirror their gas-powered counterparts, minus the exhaust pipe.
Electric bikes (or 电动车, roughly ‘electric moving vehicle’) in China are not intended to give the rider an extra push up hills, as they run almost exclusively on battery power and are rarely pedaled. Models range drastically (in terms of Ren Min Bi, or RMB for short, the Chinese currency) from RMB1,700 (US$249) to RMB3,380 (US$495) for a deluxe model with a lithium battery. Although all they all run on 48-volt batteries, they differ in top speed and range, depending on the battery’s amp hours, AH. The moped style bikes with pedals will go up to 35 km/h (22 mi/h) and have a range of either 50 km (31 mi) or 70 km (43.5 mi) depending on the model. The scooter type e-bikes also have the two range options listed above with a top speed of 40 to 50 km/h (25 to 31 mi/h).
Moped style e-bike, more scooter than bicycle
Moped style e-bike, more scooter than bicycle
To put this all in perspective, the style of e-bike popular in the United States, which is also available in China, needs to be pedaled and the motor is only intended for a little extra push. This style, which is more bicycle than anything else, has a smaller battery, 24-volts versus 48, and a top speed of 30 km/h (18.5 mi/h) and a range of approximately 35 km (21.5 mi).
Although Chinese e-bikes seem inexpensive to a foreigner (the model recommended to me cost US$336), even these basic models can be more than a month’s salary in China. Personal ownership of a new e-bike is a sign of moderate wealth.
Many e-bike models can go 70km (43.5mi) on a single charge, more than the average American commute of about 53km (33mi). Despite the obvious environmental benefits and the recent push towards greener modes of transportation, e-bikes would face serious resistance for mass adoption in the United States. Mainly, Americans refuse to accept urban density, while the Chinese do (no jokes please). The American dream involves carving out a piece of land for oneself and as the population increases, that little suburban slice of heaven gets farther and farther away from city centers. Secondly, American cities and roads rarely make room for vehicles besides cars. With some notable exceptions, bike lanes only pay lip service to the idea of alternative transportation. Separate lanes for two wheeled vehicles would greatly improve America’s chances to embrace e-bikes. And finally, most Americans probably think e-bikes are lame. But if a company could take the guts of a Chinese electric scooter and put them into a beautiful Italian-style scooter, that business could do well.
I am not saying that China is saving the world by extensive adoption of e-bikes, especially with concerns of how the batteries are recycled, or that it is necessarily the most pleasurable experience (given the way Chinese motorists drive). But I do think there is something to be said for the denizens of China’s cities embracing energy efficient modes of transportation. While Americans might not be willing to give up Manifest Destiny quite so soon, e-bikes can benefit enough people in the United States that they deserve to be given a fighting chance.

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