A Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins with a Single E-bike
September 4, 2007
Stepping off the curb to cross a street in Chinese cities, sounds of squeaky brakes are the only signal you hear to warn that you are about to be hit by an electric bicycle. They travel quite quickly in comparison to foot travel, but congest traffic because they don’t move as fast as cars.
What does being hit by an e-bike in China have to do with Peak Oil and declining conventional oil supplies? In order to answer that question we have to take a look at electric infrastructure that is currently used to power transportation on a mass scale in Asia. More importantly, we have to ask whether it can work on a much larger scale.
Also known as e-bikes, electric bicycles are becoming more and more common in Chinese cities. They represent wealth – a status symbol for the middle class. It’s higher status than walking, riding a bicycle or taking the bus, but less than owning a car.
Chinese government statistics put the number of e-bikes at 28 million Expected sales in 2007 will add another 30 million units, almost doubling the entire countrywide ownership in just one year. Add to that half a billion bicycles and 80 million motorcycles and you can see that most of the people here do most of their traveling by two-wheeled vehicle.
Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Are e-bikes a first step in the transformation of the world’s transportation system? Maybe, but the challenges are enormous.
Infrastructure: With the addition of all of these new e-bikes, cities will also need to dramatically increase electricity infrastructure to keep the bikes re-charged and moving. E-bikes can be plugged directly into a wall socket for recharging with no specialized equipment, but the places to re-charge are limited to parking garages in apartment buildings, office complexes and some parks where you have to pay 2RMB (.23 cents) for a recharge. Electric sockets are like parking spaces: you need to go somewhere else when the spaces are full. Chinese cities are still building the somewhere else.
I asked a city transportation official, “What if someone needed to travel a longer distance. Where could you recharge along the roadside?” His response was “Take the bus” – and this puts us back to the peak oil debate. What happens if you can’t afford the bus because fuel is scarce and extremely expensive?
E-bikes are only used in cities with flat terrain or minor uphill grades. Hilly cities in the mountains – Chongqing and Lanzhou come to mind - lack e-bikes, simply because power from the batteries is not enough to climb steep hills. On one occasion I saw an e-bike having trouble getting up the ramp of a parking garage; the rider had to get off and walk beside the bike to the top of the ramp.
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