Children wearing masks to combat air pollution in a Chinese city (Source: AFP/Getty Images, from theguardian.com)
The Issue: Air Pollution in China
Does anyone remember the pictures of smog-ridden Chinese cities during the 2008 Summer Olympics? When you think of a big city in China, do you picture people walking in the streets with masks on to protect them from the pollutants created by the burning of so much coal, and the combustion of fuel from the growing number of cars on the roads?
There is no doubt air pollution is indeed a growing problem in China. According to the World Health Organization, in 2012, one million people in China died from “dirty air”. Despite these alarming and discouraging numbers, there are positive developments taking place within this haze, and e-bikes have played a significant role in this area.
E-Bikes Abound in Chinese Cities
The latest sales figures show that around 30 million e-bikes are sold annually in China. What are the reasons for such a high number of e-bikes being sold? What do these high sales figures mean for China’s environmental future?
In the early 1990s, the Chinese government, in an effort to reduce traffic congestion and improve air quality, limited the availability of motorcycle licenses and banned motorcycle access to some roads and highways. Coupled with these steps, local governments installed bicycle lanes and charged licensing fees for gas-powered scooters. These government actions, combined with rising income levels and improvements in e-bike technology and battery capability, all played a part in setting the stage for a huge increase in e-bike sales in China: from 150,000 e-bikes sold in 1999 to 21 million sold in 2007. Now, as we find ourselves in the middle of the second decade of the 21st century, we see these annual figures rising to the 30 million range.
Could E-Bikes Be The Answer to China’s Environmental Woes?
Are e-bikes the solution to the air pollution issue? In other words, are the lower carbon emissions associated with the increased use of e-bikes going to make a significant impact in the overall air quality of Chinese cities? After all, according to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers (CAAM), around 28 million cars were sold in China in 2016. With so many conventionally-fueled cars being sold, it’s reasonable to ask whether the high sales and usage of e-bikes, while encouraging, will really make any significant difference for the environment and for the health of people in China.
Unfortunately, no one, at this point, really knows the answer to these questions. There are, nonetheless, economic realities which may turn the tables in the battle for a cleaner environment in China. The rising cost of gasoline, for example, could lead to another surge in the sales of e-bikes, as people react to the financial burden of a high fuel cost by choosing an alternative means of transportation. There is a precedent for such a reaction to the rising cost of gasoline. In the United States, the e-bike industry’s sales figures increased noticeably in 2008, a year when the price of gasoline rose to $4 per gallon. Presumably, there is a point at which gasoline will become too expensive for the average person to afford, leaving them little choice but to look for alternatives to conventionally-fueled cars, at which point e-bikes may start to become a more and more attractive and viable option.
An Uncertain Road Ahead
It remains to be seen whether a rising fuel cost alone would be enough to kick start a real change in the transportation system, in the form of even more e-bikes being on the roads. Like any complex system, there are multiple variables at play, including: the price of fuel, the availability of affordable transportation alternatives, the practicality of these alternatives, road safety, government policy, and distances involved in getting from one place to another. It is, nonetheless, encouraging to see how e-bike sales have surged over the past decade or so, and it appears, given the large number of e-bikes on the roads in China, that they will inevitably form part of the solution to the environmental problems China is facing.
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