Environment

An electric shock

A new green bike may not be so green after all, Nanning discovers

One of China's 80 million electric bike riders

The world’s best selling bicycle was supposed to inspire international peace, and was to be called the Flying Dove accordingly.

But somewhere along the manufacturing line in early Maoist China it morphed into the Flying Pigeon. More proletarian, perhaps.

No matter, the Pigeon went on to become a giant success. And as China freewheeled into the reform era, ownership became even more aspirational; Deng Xiaoping once defined prosperity as “a Flying Pigeon in every household.”

But more recently commentators have wondered if a new love affair – with the car – might dent the nation’s attachment to the bicycle.

Not if the promoters of the electric bike, or e-bike, get their way. The e-bikes (powered by a battery and a small electic motor) range in style from traditional pedal bicycles to larger scooters.

But by restricting the speed and size of the green machines, their riders can enjoy the same loose regulations imposed on bicycle riders. So no license and registration requirements and no need for helmets. But full access to the country’s bicycle lanes.

Many of the country’s bicycle-riders have traded up to electric, and as many as 80 million have been sold in aggregate, says the China Bicycle Association.

One big factor in demand is that e-bikes are cheap, costing a fraction of the outlay for a car. Some are being sold for as little as Rmb1,500, or about $180. Another attraction is that they are easy to operate and well-suited to crowded Chinese streets. Supporters of the bikes are quick to point out the other benefits too; the bikes are quiet and non-polluting but also offer a flexible way of getting around.

Zhang Huaiqing, an e-bike owner, told the Beijing Times: “A car is too expensive and I cannot afford it. But I will be too tired if I come and go by bike. It will be crowded on the bus, and I would not like to join those people.” A cycling snob, by the sound of it.

According to the Guangming Daily, e-bike production in China accounts for about 90% of the global total. However, despite its perceived advantages, the “green” bike has its critics too, especially those who say it does not deserve its environmental credentials.

Researchers point out, for instance, that e-bikes get through one car-sized lead acid battery per year. And because of poor production techniques, as well as unsophisticated recycling practices in China, anything from 30-70% of the lead in a battery can be lost through seepage. This is an equivalent of about 3 kilograms of lead emission per battery.

Apply this to millions of e-bikes, and that is a lot of lead dispersing into China’s already fragile ecosystem. Exposure to lead contamination can result in neurological damage as well as renal disease. So city officials are now weighing up the e-bike’s future in cost-benefit terms and some cities have decided to ban them, including Nanning in Guangxi Province, which had one of the largest numbers of e-cyclists. Industry experts expect more cities to follow suit.

Meanwhile, other commuters are clamouring for a reversal of the ban, with some accusing the Nanning government of infringing on their rights. One cyclist told the Guangming Daily that the government should have better understood the environmental pros and cons before encouraging widespread purchase.

The biker, who refused to be named, said he is upset that he’s ended up owning an illegal vehicle that is now “worth less than scrap”.


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