China and the two-wheeled terror

Consumers cherish them as a cheap and convenient way to get from point A to point B while authorities view them as threats to riders and pedestrians alike.

Consumers cherish them as a cheap and convenient way to get from point A to point B. Authorities tend to view them as mobile menaces that threaten riders and pedestrians alike. Still, the electric bike remains tremendously popular. Clifford Coonan, foreign correspondent, reports The two-wheeler with a takeaway food box on the back picks up speed at the intersection as the traffic lights start to change. The cyclist takes his feet off the pedals as the little battery-powered engine kicks in, whizzing him through traffic to the bicycle path, where he weaves through the human-powered bikes labouring in the Beijing cold.

This scene is being repeated all over China, which has gone crazy for electric bicycles, so much so that recent state efforts to restrict their use have been shelved amid an enormous public outcry. Though Chinese consumers are expected to purchase more than 12 million cars this year, they are likely to buy 20 million of the so-called e-bikes if the trend of the past few years continues. Electric bikes are far and away the best-selling form of transport on the streets, with 120 million battery-powered two-wheelers zipping up and down China's thoroughfares.

You see them everywhere, piloted by every kind of person imaginable - migrant workers heading to building sites, traders carrying their wares stacked on small flatbeds at the back, bureaucrats and office workers riding to and from appointments. Increasingly, foreigners are joining the crowd and going electric. While China's love affair with the bicycle is well documented, a gigantic urbanisation movement and the country's transformation into the world's biggest car market may soon make the traditional two-wheeler obsolete.

Faster than a regular bike and cheaper than oil-consuming motorbikes and cars, e-bike riders do not need a licence and are not required to have insurance or annual vehicle check-ups as do other drivers. This is one Chinese trend that can be expected to take off in the rest of the world because it is extremely practical. Though much has been made of China's bid to become a manufacturer of battery-powered electric cars, the electric two-wheeler is already there and in force. Beijing alone has 700,000 electric bicycles.

The e-bike is environmentally friendly because they are powered after a short distance by on-board batteries, which do not contribute to the yellow haze of pollution casting a pall over most Chinese cities. They can travel about 100 kilometres on a full charge, more than enough for a day's cycling for most people. They are also convenient. Many apartment buildings now have charging stations where riders can plug in their e-bikes overnight.

However, as with most things, they are not perfect. Although wildly popular with consumers, regulators dislike them and view them as road safety hazards. Traffic police complain that electric bikes and their riders are not trained. Empirical evidence bears this out as some of the crazier driving stunts on the mean streets of Beijing are pulled by e-bike jockeys. Police say the fact that riders are unlicensed and exempt from registration fees makes it difficult to enforce traffic regulations.

"Many electric-powered bicycles do not have number plates and so cyclists can escape after committing hit-and-run accidents," the traffic management division in Beijing's Yizhuang district has said. Cities in southern China including Shenzhen and Guangzhou, where electric bicycles are the most popular form of transportation, have made a futile effort to ban the vehicles, usually for safety reasons. However, their sheer practicality makes them almost too popular to remove from the roads.

The State Standardisation Administration plans to regulate electric bicycles from the start of this year and has said the rules will protect cyclists and pedestrians. The rules would restrict the e-bikes to 20kph and require that they weigh in at less than 40kg. Anything faster or heavier would be classed as a conventional motorbike. The proposals also require electric bicycle users to pass driving tests, get insurance and submit to annual check-ups on the vehicle by traffic authorities.

The measures have proven unpopular in the extreme. The backlash from the e-bike lobby has been so intense that the government has back-pedalled on its decision amid concerns that more than 2,000 e-bike factories would close and the logistic nightmare of millions of users needing licences and insurance. In an announcement, the administration said that since e-bikes were an emerging industry, "time and caution" were needed when making relevant policies.

One of China's leading writers, Han Han, took on the issue and seemed to come down on both sides at the same time. "With this rule, the majority of the electric bikes will be classified as mopeds or electric motorcycles. The owners will have to pay a lot for licences and taxes," he said. However, electric bikes "are silent, with poor braking performance. A lot of electric vehicles are able to run at 50kph. But it is rare that an electric bike driver kills someone."

Consumers appear to have no such qualms. Huang Sheng from Beijing's fast-growing Chaoyang district told the China Daily: "I ride my 2,400 yuan (Dh1,300) electric bike to work every day. It can travel at speeds of up to 40kph and I always get to work on time." Commentators generally tend to side with the electric bicycles, even if they find it annoying to have them buzzing down the bike lanes. "Electric bicycles are an environmental-friendly means of transport," one editorial said.

"With an increasing number of people using them, emissions from cars will be reduced by a great margin. If only for the sake of preventing global warming, they should be encouraged, but the new standards will definitely not do that." So the e-bike continues to abide in China. As the trend towards lower global carbon emissions gathers pace, expect to see them in a street near you soon.