Last week, as the streets of Beijing were paralysed by a record 140 traffic jams, residents found themselves taking two or three hours to cover 10 km in their cars.
Wang Meng, however, had no such problem. As Beijing's roads became sprawling parking lots, he zipped in and out of the rows of stranded cars as he sped to work on a battery-powered bike he bought for 1,000 yuan (about Rs. 6,700).
“There is no sense in owning a car in Beijing today,” he said with satisfaction and some smugness, watching agitated taxi-drivers yelling at each other in the middle of yet another endless gridlock on Beijing's Third Ring Road.
The electric bike revolution has taken China's streets by storm. Since ‘e-bikes' were given formal approval five years ago, their numbers have grown so fast that they now outnumber cars in many cities.
With the fast-growing number of car-owners among China's middle-class increasingly straining the infrastructure, e-bikes are emerging as a cheap, practical and environment friendly solution for commuters.
Unlike the e-bikes marketed in the West and India, China's bikes are low-end and cost-effective. The cheapest range of e-bikes, which are essentially cycles fitted with a 12-36 volt battery, cost around 800 yuan (around Rs. 5,360), while a mid-range model costs twice as much.
How do e-bikes work? When the batteries are fully charged — they take around five hours to charge and can be plugged into a regular wall-socket at home — e-bikes can cover more than 40 km. Given that 40 per cent of all commutes in Beijing are less than 5 km, they have proven hugely popular. A decade ago, there were only a few thousand e-bikes in China. Today, by some estimates, there are 120 million.
Much of the explosion has taken place since 2006, when policies first began to support e-bikes, giving licences to more than 2,000 manufacturers.
“Only four years ago, were there hardly any electric bikes in Beijing, but today they are everywhere,” said Shi Zhao Hui, who owns the Huo Yan Niao (literally, Bird of Fire) e-bike store in Beijing.
Could e-bikes catch on in India? Pawan Agarwal, director of Ebike India, which imports e-bikes from southern Zhejiang province and sells them in India, says there is a huge market potential, but not enough policy support.
One obstacle is the absence in many cities of cycle lanes, which local governments in China have been building with increasing vigour since the early 1990s. Another is high import duties. With 27 per cent, a 1,500-yuan (about Rs. 10,000) e-bike is sold for Rs.20,000 in India.
“The price in China is what people would expect here,” Mr. Agarwal says. The market is not large enough yet for bikes to be made locally. But with rising fuel costs, he believes more commuters in India will begin to consider the e-bike option.
The e-bike explosion in China has not been without its negatives. As the speed of e-bikes has grown with improved battery technology, from 20 km/h a decade ago to 45 km/h today, cyclists and pedestrians have voiced concerns at road safety.
The government last year put in place rules to register bikes whose speed exceeds 40 km/h and to reserve lanes for cyclists. However, with wide public opposition, they have not been enforced.
“Without cycle lanes, electric bikes do not make sense,” Mr. Shi said.
“If they are unleashed on the roads,” he added, in a warning for urban planners in India, “they will definitely not help traffic congestion. They will only bring chaos,” he said.