It’s a simple pleasure, but Xu Beilu savors it daily: gliding past snarled traffic on her motorized bicycle, relaxed and sweat-free alongside the pedal-pushing masses.
China, the world’s bicycle kingdom — one for every three inhabitants — is going electric.
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 bicycle was a vivid symbol of China in more doctrinaire communist times, when virtually no one owned a car. Even now, nearly two decades after the country began its great leap into capitalism, it still has 430 million bicycles by government count, outnumbering electric bikes and scooters 7-1.
But 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 people 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.
“E-bike” riders are on the move in the morning or late at night, in good weather or bad. When it’s wet, they are a rainbow army in plastic capes. On sunny days, women don gloves, long-sleeved white aprons and face-covering sun guards.
One of them is Xu, on her Yamaha e-bike, making the half-hour commute from her apartment to her job as a marketing manager.
“It’s obvious that driving would be more comfortable, but it’s expensive,” she says. “I like riding my e-bike during rush hour, and sometimes enjoy a laugh at the people stuck in taxis. It’s so convenient and helpful in Shanghai, since the traffic is worse than ever.”
The trend is catching on in the US and elsewhere.
In Japan, plug-in bicycles are favored by cost-conscious companies and older commuters.
“Many company workers are beginning to use them to visit clients instead of driving, to save fuel costs,” says Miyuki Kimizuka of the Japan Bicycle Promotion Institute, a private industry group.
Australians use electric bicycles in rural towns without bus and train service. Tony Morgan, managing director of The Electric Bicycle Co Pty Ltd, the continent’s largest manufacturer and retailer of e-bikes, says he has sold about 20,000 in the past decade, priced at A$1,000 (US$800) to A$2,000.
In the bicycle-friendly Netherlands, the industry says sales passed 138,800 last year.
In India, Vietnam and other developing countries, competition from motorcycles, as well as a lack of bike lanes and other infrastructure, are obstacles.
Indian sales have risen about 15 percent a year to 130,000 units, thanks in part to a 7,500 rupee (US$150) government rebate that brings the cost down to about the cost of a conventional bicycle. But they are far outnumbered by the millions of new motorcycles taking to India’s roadways.
In China, electric bikes sell for 1,700 yuan (US$250) to 3,000 yuan. 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 (US$0.15) — about the same as the cheapest bus fare — to charge a bike for a day’s use, says Guo Jianrong (郭建榮), head of the Shanghai Bicycle Association, an industry group.