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Putting the brakes on pedal power
Bicycles give way to automobiles, but e-bikes keep two-wheel tradition alive

By Keith B. Richburg and Zhang Jie
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Of all the signs of China's growing prosperity -- the gleaming new office towers, the glitzy shopping malls and designer boutiques -- perhaps the most visible is on Beijing's streets and highways, where noxious traffic jams have replaced the free flow of bicycles.

Domestic sales for cars and sport-utility vehicles passed a million a month in November, making China the world's new automobile capital, at the expense of one of the world's great bike cultures.

Bicycles were ubiquitous in Beijing not long ago -- the preferred mode of transportation for millions of Chinese. Major streets boasted wide bike lanes, sidewalks carried ample parking space for bikes, and bikes usually had the right of way at intersections. But lately, public space for bicycles has been shrinking under the tyranny of the car.

"The drivers are very aggressive. They won't wait for you for a second," said Wang Litang, 65, a retired government worker who still takes his singing thrush on long bike rides, the cage dangling from the handlebars, a common Chinese practice. "The road belongs to them now."

But the battle of the byways is not over yet, as two-wheeling enthusiasts have a popular new competitor in the marketplace that is giving the car a run for its mileage. It's the electric bicycle, or e-bike, which operates on a rechargeable battery. While China is on target to sell more than 12 million cars this year, it is also on track to sell 20 million e-bikes, if trends hold from 2007 and 2008, when 20 million e-bikes were sold each year. E-bikes are proving most popular in Beijing and other big cities, where some commuters are realizing that owning a car may bring a certain prestige as a sign of affluence but also comes with gasoline prices, parking fees, the odd traffic ticket and the notorious traffic jams.

"My family bought our first car in the 1990s, but we sold our car last year," said Bai Liping, 45, a saleswoman in an insurance company and an e-bike rider. "Having a car is not that convenient, compared with an e-bike."

Besides the lower costs for parking, and the convenience of whipping quickly through intersections, she said she spends far less on maintenance than she did on a car. E-bikes need their batteries recharged overnight, and the battery typically lasts about a year before needing to be replaced.

They are also relatively inexpensive, from about $219 for the smallest models to about $366 for the largest, fastest variety.

"The real sweet spot will be if China's e-bike explosion leads to the development of electric cars and the infrastructure for charging these e-vehicles," said Alex Wang of the Natural Resources Defense Council office in Beijing, and an avid e-biker. "China is probably better positioned to make this leap than any other country in the world."

But interviews with several e-bike owners showed that convenience, not the environment, was foremost in riders' minds. "It only takes us 15 minutes from here to our store," said Zhang Shu Mei, 39, who was at Beijing's Eastern Suburban Market loading up her e-bike with goods for her grocery store. "We feel freezing riding on this e-bike in the cold wind. But there's no other choice. What would we ride if we don't use this?"

The growing popularity of e-bikes also seems to be threatening the dominant position of traditional bicycles, at least in the big cities. According to the China Bicycle Association, the peak for traditional bicycle sales in China was in 1988, when 40 million bikes were sold. That number has steadily dropped, and it has stabilized at around 20 million locally, with more Chinese bikes sold for export.

The nature of the bicycles being sold here has changed, said Niu Qing, general manager of the bicycle association. Urban Chinese are increasingly buying mountain bikes and multi-geared bikes, to be used for weekend recreation, instead of the old-fashioned commuter models.

"The bike is transforming gradually from purely a traffic tool to an entertainment and body-building measure," Niu said, adding that predictions of the death of the bicycle in China may be premature. "The industry is not going into a nose dive like people think," he said. "It will never vanish."

There may be one unintended side effect of the explosion of e-bikes and fewer people going to work through pedal power: According to the Health Ministry, 22 percent of Chinese adults are overweight and 7.1 percent are obese. In the cities, those numbers rise to 30 percent overweight and 12 percent obese. The statistics mark a dramatic rise from the 1990s, the ministry said.

"People are lazier than before," said Jin Shan, director of the sports culture research center at the Beijing Academy of Social Sciences. "Before, no matter how far it was, the bike was your only choice. Changing from bikes to cars and e-vehicles is one reason Chinese people are getting fatter."

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