Kingdom of Electric Bicycles

Featured - On The Street, On The Street — By on June 21, 2011 12:31 am

Shi Shouping sits inside Shanghai's No. 14 Hardware Store - Bicycle Branch. Shouping used to sell traditional bikes, but transitioned to electric bikes in 2009. Photo by Doyin Oyeniyi

By Doyin Oyeniyi
For ChinaInFocus

In the bike parking lot of Zhang Shan Park Subway Station in Shanghai, the electronic bikes outnumber the regular bikes. There are dozens of them, ranging from brand new and fashionable Giant bikes to old, rusted bikes. No matter their condition, they are a growing trend in China’s changing bike culture.

China used to be known as the Kingdom of Bicycles. Thirty years ago, the streets of cities like Beijing and Shanghai were filled with bicycles as people took advantage of this convenient way to travel. Because automobiles were mainly reserved for the political elite, bikes were the only option for most people. But now China’s new middle class has flooded the streets of China with cars.

Because of the millions of cars crowding city streets, causing traffic jams and adding to air pollution, bikes are making a comeback as alternative modes of transportation, especially those with electric motors. Even in some areas of rural China, such as the village of Xiejiaqiao near Hangzhou, electric models are growing in popularity and for good reason—they are the same size as regular bikes, as fast as cars and can maneuver stop-and-go traffic without adding to air pollution.

Photo by Doyin Oyeniyi

According to “China by the Numbers,” a report issued by China Economic Review, Chinese bought 21 million electric bikes in 2010 and there are now about 100 million electric bikes on the road.

“I ride this [electric] bike because it’s effective and it saves my time when I’m working,” said Hu Zaixin, a 23-year-old businessman in Shanghai.

The electric bikes haven’t completely replaced traditional bikes in China. Although many Chinese now own electric bikes, they usually also have a regular bike at home that they use for less serious work.

Hu said that he only uses his electric bike during work, and stores it at his office, but uses his regular bike to ride to and from work and for other basic transportation needs.

Huang Lian Jhang, a bicycle repairman in the Hebei district of Beijing for the past 15 years has noticed the change in bike culture and its own influence on his small bike repair station. “Not so many people come to fix their bikes anymore,” he said.

Now people bring their electric bikes to him. Huang said that electric bikes and regular bikes have some of the same parts so he’s able to keep working.

Wen Zhicheng, a 50-year-old bike salesman, admitted that he’s experiencing lagging sales at his store, but didn’t feel threatened by the popularity of electric bikes.

“I’m not worried about [electric bikes] because there is no conflict between the people who buy old bikes and the people who buy the electronic bike,” he said. Instead, he blames the rise of public transportation and the weather on his poor sales.

Wen’s next-door neighbor, Shi Shouping, a 52-year-old electric bike salesman and bike repairman, agreed with Wen.

“They can’t compare with each other,” Shi said. “For the electronic [bike] you can use less energy and it’s also faster than the traditional bike.”

Wen and Shi both feel that while electric bikes are becoming the more common way of transportation, traditional bikes are gaining popularity as tools for exercise.

“The people who buy the [traditional] bikes are people who have a [bad] figure and want to do physical exercise,” Wen said.

Tan Yudi, a customer who came to Shi’s store to get her traditional bike repaired, owns an electric bike. She said she prefers to use her traditional bike for exercise and that electric bikes are a trend among young people.

“Mainly the young people prefer the electronic [bikes],” Tan said. “Because they have to rush to work and their lives move fast.”

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