Back to Basics: Bikes (the Electric Kind)

I've been writing on EVs in China. But one of the much neglected stories of today's urban China is EBs, or electric bikes. Before the harvest of gleaming skyscrapers gave Shanghai its unmistakable and vertiginous skyline -- projecting an image of fierce modernity -- we in the West were regularly treated to images of Chinese intersections populated by an ocean of bikes. That was the poorer China of yesteryear.

Now, it's about the automobile. When I was in Beijing in March, one thing that was noticeably odd in the daily scene of the Chinese city was the absence of bikes on the grand boulevards of the Chinese capital. It wasn't the case when I lived there in 2005. I remember the dilapidated bike that I proudly negotiated down to $10 (friends advised that the more beat-up looking, the less likely it will get stolen) and the near-death experiences of trying to squeeze through two buses converging at the same stop. Despite harrowing conditions on the capital's roads--such as pollution particles punishing my lungs--I found the bike to be an extremely effective mode of transport in a city where drivers are used to bikes.

With a city that's adding something close to 2,000 cars a day, it is little wonder that Beijing has had repeated traffic issues that are almost certain to continue. But, maybe the time has come to return to what Beijingers once relied on extensively: bikes, except souped-up with a lithium-ion battery. The EB phenomenon has received some attention, but deserves a higher profile. Unbeknownst to most, millions of EBs have been sold in China, many more than cars. And last year, Chinese manufacturers produced nearly 24 million EBs, but only exported about 400,000, according to China's EB industry association. This means that almost all the EBs are consumed domestically. The kicker here is the cost: the EBs generally range from $100-$300--that's cheaper than an iPad--making them quite affordable for the average middle-income urban resident. The Chinese EB generally evokes a smaller relative of the Vespa and only needs a wall socket to charge. With improved technology and batteries, some of the newer models can probably negotiate Beijing's traffic at 35-40 kph. Here's a hot-rod yellow model:

Of course, these machines may prove more useful than just personal transport. Anyone who has lived in a major Chinese city has witnessed the scene below of men peddling simple three-wheeled carts, usually stacked with an obscene amount of cargo that no sane person would deem it safe. It's back-breaking work. But imagine how much easier it would be to tow your ware on electric carts. And since most of these carts are shuttling material to a recycling plant in exchange for some cash, electrifying them gets you a twofer: recycling on a green vehicle!

To push this idea even further, I live in DC where a bike-sharing program has been expanded under the auspices of outgoing Mayor Adrian Fenty. There's no good reason why cities like Beijing and Shanghai couldn't start similar programs, but with EBs (Taiwan has tried bike sharing). Instead of doling out consumer subsidies for car purchases, the Chinese government could well implement rebates for EBs that could bring down the cost for poorer Chinese in the second and third-tier cities.

While China may not rank among the best in advancing the technological frontier, it is, however, much better at adopting existing technology and diffusing it (think mobile phones and the Internet). Imagine half a billion EBs careening on China's roads instead of the same number of cars (ok, so that still leaves 900 million who could potentially own cars). Mind-boggling numbers aside, this might turn out to be one of many solutions for China's enormous traffic and environmental conundrum.

Images: 1. Poida Smith/Flickr; 2. Wolfgang Staudt.


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Damien Ma is a fellow at the Paulson Institute, where he focuses on investment and policy programs, and on the Institute's research and think-tank activities. Previously, he was a lead China analyst at Eurasia Group, a political risk research and advisory firm.

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