E-asy Rider: bikes in the fast lane
Do you remember the last time your anger at the city's traffic overwhelmed you? Do any of these scenarios sound familiar? You, trying to wedge yourself onto an overcrowded bus. You, realizing that the supposed connection from the subway is nowhere near walking distance from the stop. You, failing for half an hour to flag down a cab and when you finally managed to nab one, it's just to find yourself in the gravitational center of a universal gridlock, counting the grannies overtaking you on the sidewalks until you finally see yourself turning into the Incredible Hulk.
If it feels like that was just yesterday—or five minutes ago, or right this very instant—there is a good chance that the following lines might come as a bit of pinkish light at the end of a pitch black tunnel. The grannies on the sidewalk yesterday were not the only ones passing you by: There was also a layer of electrified two-wheelers that flashed past every other second. The good news is, you can join the legions of speeding demons. (And yes, when the average speed of traffic is under 10 kmph, 25 kmph is speeding.)
Nowhere else in the world do electric bicycles constitute such a large portion of road traffic as in China. With a cruising fleet of well over 120 million electric bikes and scooters on the streets, according to a New York Times article, China's sales of electric bikes is outpacing that of both cars and traditional bicycles, say articles in the Economist and the BBC News. The country is also a global leader in the production and export of the battery-powered vehicles—and with dozens of e-bike production bases, Chengdu itself happens to be one major leg of the exploding industry. And while other major cities across the country (Beijing, Guangzhou, and Fuzhou, for instance), seem to have a love-hate relationship with electric two-wheelers, first encouraging their use and then banning them, Chengdu, until now, seems to have nothing but love for its e-bikes and e-scooters, not having taken any drastic measures to restrict or regulate them. The city's flat terrain and dedicated bike lanes on most roads make it an ideal spot for productive everyday use.
Of course, not everything about the e-bikes is grand, which other cities use to justify the bans they've at times placed: Citizen concerns over road safety is one concern since the vehicles are fast, heavy, and quiet; environmental concerns over the energy used and emissions produced in the creation and recycling of the batteries is another. And to be sure, they have their drawbacks, which we've outlined below. Nonetheless, the fact that the vehicles have gained rapidly in popularity over the past decade seems to fit in perfectly with the fact that while Chengdu's residential borders are ever expanding, traffic is crawling along at a perpetually slower pace.
So if you're considering joining the electro road riders, here are some tips.
So which one should I get?
It's best to test drive friends' bikes or try them at the many shops in the city; the best "feeling" bike is personal preference. But there are also a number of questions you can ask yourself to help narrow down the choices:
1. How far do I want to go?
The first question is that of the distance you plan to cover on a daily basis. Provided you choose a lightweight model, and you're also relatively lightweight, a 36-volt battery can probably take you 25 km or 50 km if you pedal. But the standard-issue, lead batteries lose capacity over time and in cold weather, so after one winter, your battery might barely manage half the distance it went the first year—it's a substantial loss. Upgrading to 48 volts might be worth the higher price tag; it increases your activity radius tremendously and should allow you to go back and forth anywhere within Chengdu. If you ride a lot, you might consider a 60-volt battery, but the increased voltage means increased battery mass, eating into the very energy it supplies. It would be nice to find an e-bike that allows us to discover the hilly outskirts of Chengdu, but currently, not even an 80V will get you there and back. Lithium batteries eliminate or reduce many of the problems associated with lead batteries, but until lithium-battery technology is further developed, costs remain prohibitive for average customers.
2. What design do I want?
The types of electric two-wheelers break down into three main categories: Heavy electric scooters whose design derives from their gas-powered and pedal-less counterparts. They're comfortable for one or can seat a whole family, but they're also big and heavy, and can't be easily lifted. And without pedals, if your battery fully drains while you're on the road, pushing it is hard labor. Maximum speeds range from 35 to 50 kmph. The second type is the electric bike, which is basically a standard bicycle with an engine that supports your pedaling efforts, or does the job for you up to a certain distance. The frame, brakes, suspension and other elements are those of a traditional bicycles—you can even leave the battery at home and ride it in the conventional manner. Taiwanese manufacturer Giant (捷安特) seems to be the undisputed local leader for this type, which in bike-friendly Western countries is more popular than the electric scooter. A good share come with a front engine, and some models are foldable. Finally, most models for sale in Chengdu are actually hybrids combining scooter and bike elements, with the engine usually in the back and the battery underneath, or attached to the frame under the rider. It's a design that allows the rider to pedal when necessary but still carry heavy loads on its heavy, robust frame.
3. Can I take it back home?
Regulations vary from country to country, state to state, and city to city. While some places heavily encourage electric bikes and even grant tax breaks to users, others strictly prohibit their use. While reports say that electric bikes have been appearing on the streets of the Netherlands and New York for the past couple of years, many Western countries have defined electric bicycles as vehicles running on 250 to 750 watts, or banning all types apart from battery-assisted pedal bicycles. It's best to check specific country regulations (both environmental and safety) and to buy a vehicle from a manufacturer with multinational presence for warranty and repair purposes. In the end, it might not be worth the hassle and extra cost of shipping it or checking it on a flight home, but then again, it just might be: Many e-two-wheeler models sell for thousands of Euros or dollars in Europe and the United States.
The total costs of e-vehicles somewhere between maintaining a city bike or buying a monthly transit pass and taking taxis for every trip. Based on an e-vehicle owner who pays one parking lot and buys a new bike annually after re-selling the old one, the cost of an e-vehicle breaks down to RMB5 to 10 per day; RMB130 to 330 per month per day; RMB1800 to 3300 per year; and RMB0.5 (high-voltage battery) to RMB1 (low-voltage battery) per kilometer. Costs are halved if you pedal constantly. Costs are much higher if you don't use the battery to maximum capacity daily.
Parking RMB15/month + RMB1/day for charging in residential areas; free or up to RMB1/time in commercial areas
Recharging RMB0.5 to RMB1 per cycle at home, based on current Chengdu power costs
Taxes, Fees, and Fines There are currently no license plate fees or taxes, although there has been talk of implementing regulations for heavy and fast electric vehicles. However, traffic police do occasionally hand out fines to law-breaking riders.
Repair, Maintenance, and Parts Similar to standard bike repairs: RMB0.5 to 1 for additional air; RMB1 to 3 per tire patch; RMB20 to 30 for a replacement inner tube; under RMB50 for most cosmetic parts (mirrors, pedals, seats, baskets). The most expensive parts are the microcontroller, engine, and battery, but they rarely break, and if they do, it's probably time to get a new vehicle rather than pay the hundreds to repair them. Rechargers are RMB60 for a brand name and RMB25 for a no-name device.
• If you are on a budget, wait until after any of the three major holiday periods are over and bargain hard on a discontinued model to save a couple hundred yuan
• Make the small investment in a second battery charger so you can recharge your battery at work and at home without carrying the charger back and forth
• Batteries need to be replaced every two years on average as they lose 10 to 20 percent of their capacity annually, or more in cold weather
• RMB400 plus the old battery will buy a new battery (the old one will be recycled)
• Pedaling the first meters to accelerate helps maintain your battery life and puts you ahead of the messy biker bulk
• Brands usually offer regular free maintenance to their customers' bikes at any of their shops
• Buy a proper biking suit and helmet if your scooter can hit 50 kmph
• Never leave your bike unlocked anywhere—try to lock it to a pole, tree, or friend's bike to make it that much more difficult to cart off
• The RMB1 is worth the peace of mind at paid and supervised lots. Some businesses will reimburse part of the cost of bikes that disappear from their lots.
• On a related note, leave that freebie lock in the shop and get a real one
*Comparisons to a single-gear, low-end city-bike model.
**Depending upon where you've parked it.
Death Traps and Dangers
More than the price, safety concerns might put off potential e-bikers, and for a reason: E-vehicle deaths are accounting for a growing percentage of the nation's traffic-related deaths. The most recent widely available statistic was 2,500 deaths in 2007, a small but significant 3 percent of all traffic fatalities. While on the road, apart from the general disregard for traffic orderliness, watch out for:
• Ghostriding scooters and even cars that speed into your lane without warning, lights, or brakes
• Rickshaws (sanlunche) that turn 90 degrees or stop suddenly while you're in their (disproportionately large) blind spot
• Motor vehicles making right turns on red lights without slowing down for cross traffic
• Buses that swerve into the bike lane on their way to the bus lane
• Unexpected holes and ditches in the streets, uncovered manholes, and unannounced speed bumps in bike lanes
• Pedestrians and other riders who didn't hear you coming due to the quiet nature of electric vehicles
• Black Audis.