WSJ Calls China’s Electric Bicycle Craze a Killer

Mainstream media have finally noticed the electric bicycle craze that's swept China — where there are now 120 million e-bikes on the road — and is now making inroads in Europe and North America. This weekend the New York Times examined what it called China's “accidental transportation upheaval”, and the Wall Street Journal devoted a coveted cover slot to China's e-bikes in January. The latter, unfortunately, paints an unduly dark picture of this energy-efficient and relatively affordable urban transport option.

“Because they are so silent, fast and heavy they've become a traffic menace,” says WSJ China correspondent Shai Oster in the video that accompanies his piece on e-bikes, unwisely shot while riding one through Beijing (video embedded below). Oster says this is why there is a “new backlash” against e-bikes, with various levels of Chinese governments trying to squelch the e-bike. What I see is ongoing harassment that China's e-bike community has endured for the past 6-7 years.

Early on the official complaint was that rapid replacement of the lead acid batteries most Chinese e-bikes carry  fueled pollution (According to the Times a typical Chinese e-bike uses five lead batteries in its lifetime, each containing 20 to 30 pounds of lead). Today the complaint is that deaths have “soared” from 34 in 2001 to over 2000 in 2007 (not too surprising given that e-bike use was exploding exponentially over that period). My take — reinforced by alternative-transport and urban design activists in China — is that these complaints are a smokescreen for car-oriented industrial and urban planners.

I stand by that analysis, argued for Spectrum in the 2005 feature “China's Cyclists Take Charge.” But I also ran the issues by Chris Cherry, a transportation engineer at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville who wrote his dissertation on the environmental, safety and mobility impacts of China's e-bike phenom.

Cherry responded yesterday with a back-of-the-envelope comparison that reveals e-bike fatalities — about 3.8 per 10,000 vehicles in 2007 — about as high as you'd expect for China's dangerous streets. In the same year fatality rates for riders of conventional bicycles, motorcycles and cars were roughly 1.5, 12.1 and 81 per 10,000 vehicles, respectively. In the U.S., by contrast, the road fatality rate is about 1.8 per 10,000 vehicles. “An ebike on crazy Chinese streets is only twice as dangerous as me driving to get a gallon of milk in the US”, says Cherry.

He is more sanguine about e-bikes role in Chinese lead pollution. The problem, he says, is that many small, poorly regulated smelters recycle used e-bike batteries and they make a mess in the process, and it is largely the e-bike's explosive growth that keeps them open. “The rate of new high tech facilities can’t keep up with consumption,” says Cherry.

That said, Cherry tells me I'm “right on” as far as the best role for Chinese officials. They could do more good, he agrees, by trying to solve the lead problem than trying to snuff out the e-bike. His proposal is that they use economic rather than traditional regulation (which clearly isn't working): “I think that it would be more cost effective to subsidize clean batteries (as a larger part of their e-vehicle initiative) or [to] heavily tax lead.”

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