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Electric Bikes Are Really Popular in China. Can They Catch on in the States?

Electric bikes have really taken off in China. Between 1998 and 2009, China went from around 56,000 electric bikes to 120 million. Sales are...

Electric bikes have really taken off in China. Between 1998 and 2009, China went from around 56,000 electric bikes to 120 million. Sales are projected to reach 22 million in 2010.


China's situation is pretty unique, though. While people seem to like electric bikes in the Netherlands, they've been slow to catch on in North America, Latin America, Eastern Europe, and just about everywhere else. You couldn't even put China on the chart below. It's on a different scale entirely.

So why are they doing so well in China? Part of the reason is that many urban Chinese, who are now starting to make more money, have never had a car. They're used to biking and can upgrade to an electric bikes instead of buying a first car. In the States, on the other hand, car owners would be buying an electric bike as a supplement to a car. And looking at the decision from that perspective, it seems like an expensive purchase-electric bikes usually run between $1,500 and $3,000-that fills a pretty narrow need.Many Chinese cities also banned motorcycles or imposed strict limits on the number of licenses it would issue. That more or less eliminated the electric bike's polluting competitor in the market.In an excellent series of posts at the Sightline blog, Alan Durning argues that new laws are the only way we can get electric bikes to catch on in the States:
The hope that electric vehicles, perhaps led by electric bikes, will displace petroleum-fueled vehicles rapidly, simply by out-competing conventional vehicles on cost and performance is wishful. On the 40-year timeline we have to effect a near phaseout of carbon emissions, it is dangerous thinking -- magical thinking. The only way the electrification of transportation will work is if we do what China did: write laws that make the alternatives -- fossil fuels, in this case -- accountable for their ecological consequences.
He suggests all the familiar ideas: putting a price on carbon, providing better infrastructure for cyclists, and building denser cities. Those things would certainly help, but would they be enough to push a mass shift to electric bikes? I'm not sure.
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