SHANGHAI — The population of China owns more bikes than any other country in the world — there’s one for every three inhabitants.
Noworkers upgrading to battery-powered bikes and scooters. Even those who can afford cars are opting for the bikes, to avoid traffic jams and expensive gasoline.
There are 430 million bicycles in China, which outnumbers electric bikes and scooters 7-1.
But production of electric bicycles has soared from fewer than 200,000 eight years ago to 22 million last year, mostly for the domestic market. The industry estimates about 65 million are on Chinese roads.
Car sales are also booming but there are still only 24 million for civilian use, because few of the 1.3 billion population can afford them. Chinese cities still have plenty of bicycle lanes, even if some have made way for cars and buses.
“E-bike” riders are on the move in the morning or late at night, in good weather or bad. When it’s wet, they are a rainbow army in plastic capes. On fine days, women don gloves, long-sleeved white aprons and face-covering sun guards.
One of them is Xu, on her Yamaha e-bike, making the half-hour commute from her apartment to her job as a marketing manager. She had thought of buying a car but dropped the idea. “It’s obvious that driving would be more comfortable, but it’s expensive,” she says.
Of course, other countries are embracing the e-bike as well.
In Japan, cost-conscious companies and older commuters are jumping on.
Australians use electric bicycles in rural towns that have no bus or train service. Tony Morgan, managing director of The Electric Bicycle Co. Pty. Ltd., the continent’s largest manufacturer and retailer of e-bikes, says he has sold about 20,000 in the past decade, priced at 1,000-2,000 Australian dollars (about $800-$1,600).
In the Netherlands, sales passed 138,800 last year.
In India, Vietnam and other developing countries, obstacles come from motorcycles, as well as a lack of bike lanes and other infrastructure.
Sales in India have risen about 15 percent a year to 130,000 units, thanks in part to a 7,500 rupee ($150) government rebate that brings the cost down to about the cost of a conventional bicycle. But they are still outnumbered by the millions of new motorcycles taking to India’s roadways.
In China, electric bikes sell for 1,700 yuan to 3,000 yuan ($250 to $450). They require no helmet, plates or driver’s license, and they aren’t affected by restrictions many cities impose on fuel-burning two-wheelers.
It costs a mere 1 yuan (15 U.S. cents) — about the same as the cheapest bus fare — to charge a bike for a day’s use, says Guo Jianrong, head of the Shanghai Bicycle Association, an industry group.
The e-bike doesn’t emit greenhouse gases, though it uses electricity from power plants that do. The larger concern is the health hazards from production, recycling and disposal of lead-acid batteries.
Although Chinese manufacturers are beginning to use nickel-meter-hydride and lithium-ion batteries, 98 percent still run on lead-acid types.
A bike can use up to five of the batteries in its lifetime. A Chinese-made battery containing 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of lead can generate nearly 7 kilograms (about 15 pounds) of lead pollution, he says.
“Electric bikes result in far more emissions of lead than automobiles. They always use more batteries per mile than almost any other vehicle,” Cherry said in a phone interview.
In China, owners are paid about 200 yuan ($30) to recycle old batteries but the work is often done in small, under-regulated workshops.
Because of the price competition among China’s 2,300 electric bike and scooter makers, manufacturers have been slow to embrace costlier, cleaner technology. But bigger foreign sales and demand for better batteries may speed improvements.
“We are trying to upgrade to lithium battery technology to be able to sell internationally,” said Hu Gang, a spokesman for Xinri E-Vehicle Group Co., the country’s biggest e- bike manufacturer, with sales of more than 2 million units last year.
The goal is to boost production to more than 5 million units by 2013, he said.
“It’s not that we’re that ambitious,” Hu said. “It’s just that the industry is growing so quickly.”