By Duncan Gordon
Years ago the undisputed rulers of the streets of Chinese cities were bicycles. Foreign visitors were left awestruck by the swarms of bicycles that flooded Beijing’s wide avenues at rush hour every morning and afternoon. They even inspired this song by British artist Katie Melua. Whether or not there really were, or are, nine million bicycles in Beijing is up for debate. What is true, however, is that bicycles have a new contender for the title of King of the Road. Electric scooters.
Electric scooters, or e-bikes, hold a distinct advantage over traditional pedal bicycles in that they require little effort to ride. Just switch on, sit down, and go. Most models have a maximum speed of 40-50 kmh which is fast enough to beat a bicycle hands down but not as quick as scooters’ petrol-fuelled cousins, or cars for that matter. That leaves them in a bit of a no man’s land, where they are too slow for the road but are sometimes seen as a hazard in Beijing’s, albeit generously wide, bicycle lanes. The roads are really not a credible option, so the bike lanes it is.
Another great thing about owning an electric scooter is that they are free to use after the initial necessary purchases. A second-hand scooter and battery can cost anywhere from under 1,000 RMB to closer to 8,000 RMB, depending on the model, condition of the bike, battery size and how desperate the seller is to get rid of it. Of course it is very difficult to know whether the battery you purchase second-hand really is ‘only a few months old’ or a couple of years old, and already knocking on death’s door. That’s a gamble the buyer just has to take. Unless of course one buys a brand new bike and battery in store for a higher price. Batteries can be charged at any socket in the home, usually a night’s charge will last one or two days of riding, depending on the length of your commmute. It’s important to get the calculations right, so as not to find yourself out of charge halfway home. It might be a long push from where you are.
Apart from the dreaded stuttering stop that signals the battery has died, battery theft is another worry that stalks e-bike riders. Users can of course buy seat locks to try to stop thieves from lifting the seat to snatch the valuable battery from within the bike when parked outside, but a truly determined criminal will find a way. The obvious answer is to take the battery with you at all times when not riding the bike. At home and work that’s fine, but when popping to the supermarket it is not so convenient.
Electric bikes offer clear benefits to the user in terms of convenience and cost. But they undoubtedly have societal benefits as well, especially in China and in particular Beijing. E-bikes produce no emissions. In a city with as serious an air pollution problem as Beijing, these zero-pollution, virtually noiseless, scooters are an important form of green transport. While cities all over the world are trying to find ways of weaning their inhabitants off petrol-guzzling cars and onto cleaner vehicles, surely China’s e-scooter craze should be regarded as a beacon of hope. But that’s not the case.
In fact, authorities are beginning to crack down on them. The main concern is safety. Scooters slaloming down biycle lanes at 50 kmh are not conducive to a safe road environment. In addition, many drivers do not own a licence, which makes their behaviour at times erratic, if not reckless. As a response to public concern, the Shanghai Municipal Government have introduced the following regulations as of 1 March 2017:
- E-scooter maximum speeds cannot exceed 20 kmh
- Battery power must not exceed 48 volts
- Maximum weight must be no more than 40 kg
- Continous power generated cannot exceed 240 watts
Any non-compliance with these new laws will result in a 50RMB fine until March 25, increasing to 200 RMB thereafter. If a driver fails to produce a valid licence, the police may confiscate the vehicle.
The laws are well-justified as the current e-scooter safety situation is unsustainable. Nonetheless, it is important that we try to find ways to make riding electric scooters an attractive and safe option, at a time when Chinese cities are tying to find solutions to their air pollution problems.
It remains to be seen whether e-bikes are the future of low-carbon urban transport, or just a fad that fills a gap before something better comes along. For now, outside of Shanghai at least, they will continue to be a revelation to some and nuisance to others on a daily basis.