Look for a China topic piquing international press interest in recent months, and sales of passenger vehicles would come out near the top of the list.
In part that is down to a simple number (for the first time, more cars were sold in China than in the US last year).
Then there is the easy symbolism of comparing America’s auto HQ (increasingly decrepit Detroit) with the shiny new car factories in China, some of which promise to turn out radical new engine techologies (it’s wait-and-see on that one, admittedly).
But for the majority, cars remain prohibitively expensive. Experts estimate that only one in 35 Chinese have a car.
Enter one of our favourite topics at WiC: battery-powered bicycles (or ‘e-bikes). The bikes are traditional pedal-powered vehicles with a small motor attached, and they offer an affordable alternative for those who would like a car but cannot afford one. There are about 120 million electric bicycles on Chinese streets, says Caijing magazine, with the biggest manufacturer being Xinri.
At about Rmb2,000 ($240) apiece, an e-bike costs five times a regular bicycle. But they measure up much better compared to cars. They also require no driving licence, no insurance and no road tax. Their batteries can be recharged cheaply too.
“It’s obvious that driving would be more comfortable, but it’s expensive,” e-biker Xu Beilu told Shanghai Daily. “I like riding my e-bike during rush hour, and sometimes enjoy a laugh at the people stuck in taxis. It’s so convenient, since the traffic is worse than ever.”
E-bikes are also a greener option, as they don’t emit exhaust gases. According to the Institute of Transportation at Tsinghua University, the country avoids 57 million tonnes of carbon emissions in switching from standard motorcycles to e-bikes.
Despite the benefits, a government regulating body recently reclassified e-bikes weighing over 40kg (or capable of speeds above 20km/h) as “motorcycles”.
That’s bad news for all the e-bikers, as they will now need the licenses and insurance they had previously done without. What’s more, the new restrictions will apply to about 90% of all the e-bikes already on the roads, say industry observers. Most e-bikes have a speed capacity of 30km/h. Their batteries alone weigh in the 16-28 kilogram range.
Beijing officials argue that e-bikes pose a threat to traffic safety. Regular cyclists have complained that e-bikers have caused accidents by nipping in and out of traffic queues. Battery power means the bikes are so quiet that they can surprise unwary pedestrians too.
“Imagine you are riding a bicycle at 10km/h. Do you feel safe if other cyclists ride their bicycles several times faster than you?” asks Miao Wenquan of the National Automotive Standardisation Committee. “Those who insist on using electric bicycles have no regard for other people’s safety and are extremely selfish.”
Others scorn the new 20km/h limit. “That speed is just a little quicker than jogging,” says Wu Changsheng, a Beijing-based lawyer familiar with the industry. “Cities like Beijing already have a large number of e-bikers, many of whom are part of the low-income population. None of these people will be able to afford an electric-powered bike if the proposal gets adopted.”
Industry observers say the new regulation will lead to the closing of more than 2,000 factories. Many small, privately-owned companies will be pushed to the brink of extinction, Gong Xiaoyan, head of the e-bike industry association of Tianjin, told the 21CN Business Herald.
But, at the last moment, the government seems to have played for time, repeating the rules but saying it is up to local authorities to enforce registration demands. “This is good news,” said an official at the China Bicycle Association, who clearly views this as a climb down.
But not yet a clear victory.
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