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The Electric Bicycle Revolution in China

I remember a China where the streets were full of bicycles. I remember peddling in virtual seas of thousands of other cyclists, how rush hour was a critical mass of bicycles zooming every which way, where bike lanes became roaring highways. The bicycle was the top commuter vehicle in the country, and there were hundreds of [...]

I remember a China where the streets were full of bicycles. I remember peddling in virtual seas of thousands of other cyclists, how rush hour was a critical mass of bicycles zooming every which way, where bike lanes became roaring highways. The bicycle was the top commuter vehicle in the country, and there were hundreds of millions of them in use from the Shanghai to Xingjiang, Harbin to Nanning.

This was in 2005. These days are no more.

The bicycle as a commuter vehicle is going extinct in China. The ebike, or electric bicycle, is taking its place.

Please watch this video before reading the rest of the article.

What is an ebike?

An electric bicycle is exactly what it sounds like: a two wheel vehicle run off a battery powered motor. They can attain speeds up to 48km an hour and can travel up to 100km on a full charge. Typically, the max speed of ebikes is capped by various municipalities in China at 20km per hour, but many manufacturers often make it easy for customers to remove the governor and make their bikes go much faster than this.

Electric bicycle

People charge up their electric bicycles by plugging them in at docks offered by their apartment complexes or remove the batteries and take them up to their homes to charge. Unlike electric car batteries, the ones for ebikes can be plugged into a standard socket. The Achilles heal of electric bicycles in China is that most are powered off of lead acid batteries — which are far cheaper to manufacture than the lithium batteries that are almost standard on ebikes in Europe and the USA. These lead batteries are prone to losing their charge easily and often need to be replaced yearly.

There are a few different kinds of ebikes in China: some still have pedals attached and can be operated in conjunction with human power, some look like mini-scooters and are 100% battery powered, and others look just like mopeds and go just about as fast. Chinese law generally separates an ebike from an electric moped by weight: an electric bicycle weights under 40 lbs. But, for all practical purposes, they are virtually the same vehicle — the latter just goes a little faster and requires a license to operate.

The cheapest ebikes can be purchased for a couple hundred dollars, while more expensive models retail at five or six hundred bucks. In all, ebikes are thought of as being a cheap form of urban transport, and once purchased, the cost of running one is estimated at only 21 cents per day (source: China Signost).

China’s ebike revolution

“Motorcycles are too dangerous, cars are too expensive, public transportation is too crowded and pedal bikes leave you too tired.” According to an article in Time Magazine this is the reason so many Chinese people have chosen electric bicycles as their prime means of urban transportation.

Ebikes

To date, there are over 140 million ebikes on the streets of China — which is double the amount of automobiles in the country. These electric bicycles are literally everywhere: clogging up the bike lanes, buzzing over the sidewalks, and criss crossing in and out of traffic in the streets. The electric bikes move like packs of locusts, enveloping and zipping around anything that stands in their path, whether it be human, animal, car, or bicycler. There are few rules for operating ebikes, no license is required to drive one, and no registration process is required to own one: you just buy one from the store, hop on, and go.

Good luck!

“There are two rules for driving an ebike: 1) never look behind you, and 2) when you make a turn just go out into traffic and don’t stop for anything,” an electric bicycle riding friend in Taizhou explained. Ebikes are driven as though they are bicycles, but they are made to go far faster and the drivers seemingly have less control. Two or three thousand people are killed each year in ebike related accidents across China, and it’s easy to see how this happens: people tend drive them without much regard for mortality. They quickly weave in and out of traffic, crossing between bike lanes, the road, and sidewalks at their discretion. It is common for two or more people to be riding on a single bike –sometimes you even spot entire families packed tightly onto one. Small children are often placed between the legs of the driver — sometimes sitting on a stool placed on the deck — and larger kids are balanced on the back. Nobody wears a helmet.

One of the selling points of ebikes is that their motors make very little noise. This is great if you consider the decrease in noise pollution, but horrible if you’re a pedestrian or another driver who doesn’t hear the ebike that is approaching fast from behind you. But, all too often, the decrease in engine noise is made up for by the incessant honking of horns that seems to be an integral part of operating one of these vehicles.

Over 10 cities in China have already banned or issued restrictions on the use of electric bicycles on grounds that they have become a public hazard.

The change over from conventional bicycles to electric ones has been phenomenal. In under a decade China went from being a country of bicyclists to one of ebike drivers. There are over two thousand ebike manufacturers in the country, and they pump out millions and millions more each year. Now only the dirt poor or bicycle enthusiasts chose to peddle.

The environmental impacts of electric bicycles

There are now over 140 million ebikes buzzing around China, and this is being made out as not only a transportation revolution but an ecological one as well. Electricity powered transportation is generally viewed as being an environmentally superior option to gas fueled internal combustion engines. To an extent, this is true: ebikes and other electric transport do not have any exhaust. As anyone who has ever been to the cities of Southeast Asia or India probably knows, a population tutting around on two stroke motorcycles creates an air quality catastrophe. I’ve been through many cities that were turned into colossal smoke bombs due to simple fact that tens of thousands of people in them were riding motorcycles that belched exhaust.

But electric transportation not without air polluting qualities. 80% of electricity in China comes from the burning of coal. In the end, most ebike transportation is powered by fossil fuels.

Though I’m sure that the per kilometer fossil fuel expenditure of electric bicycles does not compare with their gas powered brethren, another point to consider is that electric bicycles are not replacing cars and motorcycles en masse: they are replacing the human powered bicycles. People are leaving behind a form of transportation that burns calories supplied by food and choosing one that is fueled by electricity. In point, ebikes demand far more energy resources than the vehicles they are booting off the roads, perhaps they are not the environmental success story they’re billed to be.

Though the major knife sticking into the heart of the “ebikes are good for the environment claim” is that the ones that are most popular in China are currently being powered by lead acid batteries which need to be replaced every year or two. This creates an environmental hazard in their production as well as their disposal. Think about it, up to 140 million lead batteries are being produced and disposed in China of every 1 -2 years for ebikes alone.

China clearly leads the global electric transportation race by far — not only are ebicycles popular in the country, but electric cars, taxis, and buses are on the rise as well — but there is still a major ecological toll that is taking place in this equation,  especially when electricity is derived here from coal, dams, and nuclear power plants. But if you ask me my preference between a society that relies on the internal combustion engine or electric power for transportation I’m siding with electricity without a thought — who would rather choke on exhaust? — but electric transportation is perhaps not the great leap forward it’s sold to be.

Conclusion

Like so much in modern China, transitions often happen fast and leave little trace of the way things use to be. The mass move from bicycles to ebikes really only happened within a handful of years, and the transition was so complete that it is now difficult to tell that this was once a country that use to peddle itself to work each day. Something special in this country was lost as the most efficient and cleanest form of transportation in human history was traded for one with batteries, buttons, accelerators, and a larger pollution and resource usage footprint.  Bicycles in China are now for teenage boys and the very poor — as it is in most other parts of the world. The ebike has taken over.

Filed under: China, Transportation

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 89 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3512 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Prague, Czech Republic

14 comments… add one

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  • Bob L May 8, 2012, 10:33 am

    “Though the major knife sticking into the heart of the ebikes are good for the environment claim is that the ones that are most popular in China are currently being powered by lead acid batteries which need to be replaced every year or two. This creates an environmental hazard in their production as well as their disposal. Think about it, up to 140 million lead batteries are being produced and disposed in China of every 1 -2 years for ebikes alone.”

    Lead acid batteries are about the easiest battery to recycle there is. Also, if taken care of, they would likely get much more than one year out of them, but most users are probably running them dry then recharging. Lead acid batteries are not very tollerant of this type of abuse. An alternative would be Edison Batteries (nickel iron) which handle abuse well. China is the only place I am aware of that is still making this kind of battery. Some of these batteries are STILL powering the turn of the century electric cars with the original batteries. (that would be early 1900’s) Each battery technology has it’s downsides as does pretty much all technology.

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    • Wade Shepard May 8, 2012, 12:08 pm

      Hello Bob,

      Right on, these batteries are recyclable and CAN be done so properly, but that is not really the case in China. Illegal “recycling” and ewaste scrap yards are really fouling up some parts of the country. There are even reports of used up lead acid batteries being dumped in stockpiles by rivers and incidents like that.

      Check out this article: http://www.wilsoncenter.org/publication/lead-batteries-re-charging-chinas-e-waste-disposal.

      Also, there is around 2,000 manufacturers of ebikes in the country now and they seem to be slapping them together as fast as possible to meet the demand of the boom. It’s my impression that not the highest quality batteries are being used — especially since this bikes are being sold so cheap.

      It would be interesting to see how this changes.

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      • Bob L May 8, 2012, 1:12 pm

        I thought about that right after I hit send. I was thinking in my US EPA carefully bring recyclables to the transfer station mode.

        One interesting “fact”. For lead acid batteries, and some other rechargables, the total energy used to make them is often very close to, or even more than, the energy you get out of them in their life. Especially if you abuse them. So if you think you are “saving energy” you may not be. Of course, it depends on what you are comparing them to plus a fair number of assumptions, so this is FAR from a solid rule. I have done the numbers a number of times with a few different battery types, using dollars rather than energy of manufacture. The thinking with this type of argument is that if you are not saving money, you are not saving energy. Just one way of doing looking at it. Using average predicted life (number of charge/discharge cycles) and average cost, many batteries come out pretty even, depending on what you use for your “cost of kWhr” amongst other assumptiond.

        So……. Does it make sense to run an electric vehicle? Well, you have to look at what you would use instead. If you compare it to pedal power, then NO. If you compare it to running a 2 cycle engine, then YES. Comparing it to an efficient 4 cycle engine, well, it depends, but “generaly” NO. Again, at least in the US. Other places the numbers may favor the electric. BUT, as with all arguments, it depends. If the only thing you are looking at is total cost, then the above may hold. If you look at other variables, such as convenience, cleanliness, etc. Maybe the above arguments don’t hold.

        Sorry, the engineer in me sometimes just has to come out.

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        • Wade Shepard May 8, 2012, 9:53 pm

          Thanks for this analysis. It really helps put this issue into perspective. If electric bicycles and cars were replacing gas powered vehicles then I would say that it is a small step in a positive direction. But the ebikes just replaced bicycles in China, and the number of cars still rise. Will put up an article about electric cars soon. Would like to hear your take on that.

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          • Bob L May 9, 2012, 9:51 pm

            Can’t wait for the article. No, really, I can’t wait 8^)

            Electric cars are a great idea. It’s the batteries that suck. There may be people for which electric cars make some sense, but in general, at least here in the US, they are not good for mass consumption. The numbers just do not add up. Batteries are expensive. They have a limited life. The cars are expensive. Until a CHEAP and long lived battery is created (don’t hold your breath) they will make no sense except for a very tiny market. Hybrids make sense, except when you compare apples to apples. If you do a cost comparison between, say, a Civic Hybrid compared to a Civic, the Hybrid loses. Unless you are driving in nothing but stop and go city traffic and don’t require heat or A/C. Even then, you need to drive a hundred thousand miles to break even. That kind of mileage all in the city? You should be walking. Now, if you compare a Prius Hybrid to a Civic gas model, well, the Prius wins if I remember from my analysis. BUT, you would do even better buying an older used car and keeping it running.

            Plug in Hybrids like the Chevy Volt? Even after someone has pointed a gun at my head and forced me to pay all those taxes to support it, the numbers still never come out ahead. Would a plug-in hybridPrius make sense? Maybe, especially if you were in a position to take advantage of the battery only modes. I have not run the numbers, but I think there are very few people who would come out ahead with such a car.

            Again, this is all with US numbers. I don’t know what it would be like for someone living in a European city. But then, who would want to live in a city anyway? 8^)

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            • Wade Shepard May 10, 2012, 1:45 am

              I seem to agree with you. It’s my impression that battery powered electric cars are too little too late. Maybe if they were just becoming instituted 30 years ago something could have been made of them, but now the advantages just don’t seem to be there for the mass population to choose them over gas powered cars. Unless the technology for battery powered cars improves drastically or the price of them drops significantly I can’t see people moving towards them if they have a choice in the matter.

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          • Bob L May 9, 2012, 9:59 pm

            Oh, and my statements only are about the monetary aspects of the vehicles. I suppose in a crowded city I would rather be surrounded by a bunch of quiet, non-smelly electric vehicles than I would two stroke oil eaters.

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            • Wade Shepard May 10, 2012, 1:47 am

              Right on, I would rather that peopled used the electric cars too. How nice would that be not having to breath in exhaust fumes all day!?! But I just don’t see that happening unless governments forced it or oil rose 10X in price. It seems as if there should be a better alternative by now.

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  • mike crosby May 8, 2012, 11:37 am

    Thanks Wade. It was cool to see your mug actually talking;-)

    “Intents and purposes”–not “Intensive Purposes”–not to be critical, but just want to point it out. Please delete this after you read it.

    I love seeing the world through your eyes Wade, thanks again.

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    • Wade Shepard May 8, 2012, 12:09 pm

      Thanks Mike.

      More videos to come.

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  • Caitlin May 9, 2012, 6:27 pm

    Sooo…. You gonna get one?

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    • Wade Shepard May 9, 2012, 10:00 pm

      No way, they’re for wimps haha. I’m all nostalgic about the downfall of the bicycle — the change happened so fast.

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  • Bob L May 10, 2012, 10:05 am

    Lots of better alternatives, for city at least. But better does not mean that they will be used. I suppose electric street cars, or busses powered by any of a number of power alternatives (natural gas, wired electric, fuel cells, multi-fuels, etc) alone or in combination would be better, but that does not mean it will be the choice of the populace. Especially a populace just contracting the disease called Affluenza.

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    • Wade Shepard May 11, 2012, 7:57 am

      Right on, technology only changes on a mass scale when it is needed. There are better alternatives but not the forces to turn the wheels, so to speak.

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