WSJ Calls China’s Electric Bicycle Craze a Killer

Mainstream media have finally noticed the electric bicycle craze that’s swept China — where there are now 120 million e-bikes on the road — and is now making inroads in Europe and North America. This weekend the New York Times examined what it called China’s “accidental transportation upheaval”, and the Wall Street Journal devoted a coveted cover slot to China’s e-bikes in January. The latter, unfortunately, paints an unduly dark picture of this energy-efficient and relatively affordable urban transport option.

“Because they are so silent, fast and heavy they’ve become a traffic menace,” says WSJ China correspondent Shai Oster in the video that accompanies his piece on e-bikes, unwisely shot while riding one through Beijing. Oster says this is why there is a “new backlash” against e-bikes, with various levels of Chinese governments trying to squelch the e-bike. What I see is ongoing harassment that China’s e-bike community has endured for the past 6-7 years.

Early on the official complaint was that rapid replacement of the lead acid batteries most Chinese e-bikes carry  fueled pollution (According to the Times a typical Chinese e-bike uses five lead batteries in its lifetime, each containing 20 to 30 pounds of lead). Today the complaint is that deaths have “soared” from 34 in 2001 to over 2000 in 2007 (not too surprising given that e-bike use was exploding exponentially over that period). My take — reinforced by alternative-transport and urban design activists in China — is that these complaints are a smokescreen for car-oriented industrial and urban planners.

I stand by that analysis, argued for IEEE Spectrum in the 2005 feature “China’s Cyclists Take Charge.” But I also ran the issues by Chris Cherry, a transportation engineer at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville who wrote his dissertation on the environmental, safety and mobility impacts of China’s e-bike phenom.

Cherry responded yesterday with a back-of-the-envelope comparison that reveals e-bike fatalities — about 3.8 per 10,000 vehicles in 2007 — about as high as you’d expect for China’s dangerous streets. In the same year fatality rates for riders of conventional bicycles, motorcycles and cars were roughly 1.5, 12.1 and 81 per 10,000 vehicles. In the U.S., by contrast, the road fatality rate is about 1.8 per 10,000 vehicles. “An ebike on crazy Chinese streets is only twice as dangerous as me driving to get a gallon of milk in the US,” says Cherry.

He is more sanguine about e-bikes role in Chinese lead pollution. The problem, he says, is that many small, poorly regulated smelters recycle used e-bike batteries and they make a mess in the process, and it is largely the e-bike’s explosive growth that keeps them open. “The rate of new high tech facilities can’t keep up with consumption,” says Cherry.

That said, Cherry tells me I’m “right on” as far as the best role for Chinese officials. They could do more good, he agrees, by trying to solve the lead problem than trying to snuff out the e-bike. His proposal is that they use economic rather than traditional regulation (which clearly isn’t working): “I think that it would be more cost effective to subsidize clean batteries (as a larger part of their e-vehicle initiative) or [to] heavily tax lead .”

This post was created for Energywise, IEEE Spectrum’s blog on green power, cars and climate

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5 thoughts on “WSJ Calls China’s Electric Bicycle Craze a Killer

  1. The major problem with the Chinese ebikes is that the manufacturers keep making them bigger and more powerful to compete with each other. They have grown from being electric bicycles to electric motor scooters that the manufacturer puts a set of pedals on to call it a bike (but you would never be able to actually pedal the thing any distance or speed). They have become very heavy and very fast going up to 40 mph. We manufacture an electric bicycle that is an actual bike with the electric motor built in (check them out at http://www.pedegoelectricbikes.com). They only go 20 mph per federal standards and can be ridden just like a bike with no motor assistance if you want. We also only use lithium batteries instead of lead acid. Big difference compared to the Chinese version of an ebike.

  2. Lithium batteries make more sense here, where consumers can afford (perhaps) the resulting doubling of the package price.

    Regarding the high speed of some Chinese e-bikes: I say treat them like motorcycles and require helmets. Again, it is dysfunctional regulation that is to be faulted, not the product.

  3. The ones showing up on Toronto streets are definitely not designed to be pedalled. They’re electric scooters.

    I have very mixed feelings about them. As an alternative to the car or a larger motorcycle, used on city streets, they make some good sense. But many of the riders seem to think they’re bicycles and take them onto multiuse paths. They’re wide, heavy and dangerous on the narrow walking/cycling trails in our river valleys. It shouldn’t matter whether the machine’s motor is electric or internal combustion, motorized vehicles should be on roads, not sidewalks and walking trails.

    Harumph. There’s my rant for the day. And don’t even get me started on the impracticality of multi-use recreational trails!

  4. The major problem with the Chinese ebikes is that the manufacturers keep making them bigger and more powerful to compete with each other. Theg have grown from being electric bicycles to electric motor scooters that the manufacturer puts a set of pedals on to call it a bike (but you would never be able to actually pedal the thing any distance or speed). They have become very heavy and very fast going up to 40 mph. We manufacture an electric bicycle that is an actual bike with the electric motor built in (check them out at http://www.pedegoelectricbikes.com). They only go 20 mph per federal standards and can be ridden just like a bike with no motor assistance if you want. We also only use lithium batteries instead of lead acid. Big difference compared to the Chines4 version of an enike.;

  5. Hi, I’ve done quite a bit of research on electric bikes and specialise
    in conversion kits. I recently went to China to visit some electric
    bike factories and shows. If you’re interested in watching a short
    documentary on the electric bike scene in China please visit my SOLAR
    BIKE website and watch one of the videos I made.
    http://solarbike.com.au/videos.php Otherwise search youtube for
    “Electric bicycles in China documentary” and it’ll be the first hit
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_KA47vf6f64 . Happy Cycling. Matthew
    from SOLAR BIKE

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