Monday, April 26, 2010

Electric Bikes in Beijing

Most of my friends in BeiJing use bicycles as their primary mode of transportation. Sprinkle in a few subway, bus and cab rides and you can get pretty much anywhere, and generally quickly. Veronica commutes to work on a single gear bike every day. Plus her bike has a pretty cool bell!

Last November, our friend Jared convinced us to invest in an electric bike. And I thank the stars for this every day.

BeiJing is an ideal city for an bikes in general and electric bikes in particular. Why? Because its flat. Very, very flat. I rarely encounter even minor hills throughout the city and this gets you a lot more distance for your power (be it pushpedal or electric).

But why electric? Why not just use your feet?

A valid question indeed and one that can only be answered in one word: cheap-convenient-lazy-awesomeness.

Okay, that may have been a few words, but every time I charge my battery (pennies a day at most) and zip through the city streets at 30-40KMH, I love life. The bike we opted for resembles a small moped. It doesn't have any gears, just a basic automatic accelerator. Its not too heavy, I can heft it up on a sidewalk if I need to circumnavigate a traffic jam. And its brakes are responsive, to avoid near-death collisions.

The bike itself set us back just $300 USD. And, as I mentioned, charges cost next to nothing. I have a few friends petrol motor bikes and, while they can certainly move faster than my bike can, they are also louder, more expensive to maintain and technically illegal without proper licensing.

There are actually a huge variety of electric bikes, ranging from small, lightweight bikes that resemble normal street bicycles and have functioning pedals, all the way up to motorcycle-looking bikes with massive batters that can't be taken out to charge. The latter type needs to be charged in a garage or courtyard, but can challenge an motor bike for speed (but not range).

Some push pedal e-bikes actually charge the battery while you pedal. Which can be a huge advantage. Running out of battery power with a large, pedal-less electric bike is no fun. Trust me. I've done it three times now. When this happens, you need to remove the battery and figure out how to best take it home to charge. Afterwards, you need to lug the battery back. No. Fun. Especially in the winter.

I've looked into the laws back in the US regarding these bikes and generally learned that most states consider a bike without pedals to be a motorcycle. As such it requires a license and license plate. To qualify as a non-licensed electric bicycle, the vehicle needs to have functioning pedals and cannot exceed speeds of 20 mph.

While it is possible these laws were designed solely with safety in mind, I think it is time they were re-examined to account for environmental impact. The bicycle movement is growing in the states and I can only imagine how much more it would grow if people had easy access to a small, in-expensive form of electric conveyance.