Electric Bikes Trendy in China

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Electric bicycles catch on in China, a nation long known for favoring two wheels despite a recent boom in car purchases. But sales of electric bicycles are growing amid skyrocketing fuel prices. The battery powered bicycles run at a top speed of 20 miles per hour.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

There was a time not so long ago when people spoke of China as a nation on two wheels. Bicycles remained pretty popular in China even today although cars are catching on. And now many Chinese are fusing the modern with the old. Electric bicycles are catching on, especially as fuel prices skyrocket.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn went for a test drive.

(Soundbite of car engine)

ANTHONY KUHN: Pretty smooth to ride here, cruising right along. Now here's a vehicle for the masses and for Beijing's grid-locked streets and smug-choked air. The E-bikes battery is good for about 30 miles after which you can still pedal. If you use the battery and pedal at the same time, you get a power assist and the battery lasts an extra 12 miles or so. The bike's time speed is about 20 miles an hour, and nobody here wears helmets.

The bikes are very popular with Chinese like Jo Jen(ph), a building maintenance worker at Beijing's Tsinghua University. She's getting her bike fixed in a nearby store.

Ms. JO JEN (Maintenance Worker, Tsinghua University): (Through translator) I just use the bike to take my kids from the university to their school and then take them up. It's about 18 miles roundtrip. I take both my kids who are small. What's not to like about these bikes? They're definitely better than regular ones.

KUHN: Most of the E-bikes cost the equivalent of two or three hundred dollars. Charging the battery takes about four hours and costs just a few cents. Also checking out the bike is Wang Tai Jun(ph), a migrant laborer from rural Hefei province. He says E-bikes are just beginning to show up in the countryside.

Mr. WANG TAI JUN (Migrant Laborer): (Chinese spoken)

KUHN: You have to be pretty well-off to afford one of these, he says. Maybe your family runs a small business or you're an older person with children who have good jobs and give you a little money.

Bike store owner Chang Ju Tian(ph) has been selling the E-bikes since 2003. He reckons that China's biggest city, Shanghai, now has over a million E-bikes in use while Beijing may have around 700,000.

Mr. CHANG JU TIAN (Bike Store Owner): (Through translator) Sales of E-bikes are growing every year. I think they may eventually replace regular bicycles. In Beijing, E-bikes now account for 30 or 40 percent of the total and about 60 to 70 percent in southern China.

KUHN: But some southern cities, it seems, would rather promote cars than E-bikes. Several cities in prosperous Guangdong province have banned E-bikes and fined riders. The government argues that their lead batteries pollute and that riders disobey traffic laws and cause accidents.

That's baloney, says Beijing-based lawyer Bu Chu Zhang(ph). He has represented E-bike riders who have successfully sued city governments for confiscating their bikes. He says that banning E-bikes violates China's road safety law.

Mr. BU CHU ZHANG (Lawyer): (Through translator) The government can restrict the times or places where people can ride E-bikes, he says, or limit their speed. But the law doesn't give them the authority to ban an entire class of vehicles.

KUHN: Hu Hsiao Hua is head of the Guangdong Province Bicycle Industry Association, which has lobbied the government to reverse the bans. He says local bans on E-bikes are in odds with central government policy, including China's recently revised energy saving law.

Mr. HU HSIAO HUA (Director, Guangdong Province Bicycle Industry Association): (Through translator) One of the highlights of these laws that it encourages the use of non-motorized vehicles for transport. I think this sort of regulation is an implicit criticism of some local governments banning or restricting the use of electric bicycles.

KUHN: Hu says that despite the problems with local government policies, in the long term, the future for E-bikes in China looks promising.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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