China’s Electric Bikes

An electric bicycle is either a traditional pedal bicycle assisted by an electric motor or a bicycle powered exclusively by a rechargeable battery. Kunming’s major streets have lanes dedicated to bicycles. Most bikes travelling along the city’s bike lanes are electric bikes – ebikes. Only the oldest electric bikes look like traditional bicycles. Newer models look like gasoline-powered motor scooters.

Every day my Chinese language teacher, Lulu Ma, commutes to work on her ebike.

Kunming is an ideal place for an ebike. Commutes are short enough for the ebikes’ limited range, the climate is fine year round, the terrain is flat and electric power is plentiful. Furthermore, ebikes currently come under the same classification as bicycles and don’t require a driver’s license to operate.

Because ebikes are soundless, the city is a much quieter place than cities in Nepal, Vietnam, Thailand and India where gasoline-powered motorcycles rule the road. The downside is that Kunming allows ebikes on sidewalks, so one can be on top of an unsuspecting pedestrian with no warning.

Ebikes are zero-emission vehicles, emitting no combustion byproducts. But there are environmental effects of electricity generation and power distribution and of manufacturing and disposing of limited-life high storage density batteries. Even accounting for these issues, ebikes have significantly lower environmental impact than conventional automobiles and are generally considered environmentally preferable. The ebike’s small battery pack makes it a good candidate for solar charging.

China has the world’s largest number of ebikes – as of early 2010 roughly 120 million on the road. According to Wikipedia, electric bicycle usage worldwide has grown rapidly since 1998. The Electric Bikes Worldwide Reports – 2010 Update estimates that 1 million ebikes will be sold in Europe in 2010. The same report estimates that sales in the USA will reach roughly 300,000 in 2010, doubling the number sold in 2009.

In spite of the  ebike’s popularity as an efficient and economical way to negotiate China’s increasingly choked streets, automobile ownership and usage is rapidly increasing. The China Daily estimates that 17 million new cars will be sold in 2010, a 25% increase over 2009. Last year China replaced the US as the world’s No 1 automobile market.

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