It’s 8 a.m. and Shanghai is moving.

For the cars and trucks crammed together on the elevated highway cutting through downtown, it’s a slow crawl. On the smaller roads below, traffic is rolling at a steady 10 to 15 kilometers per hour in what looks like a more traditional Chinese street scene. Vying with the cars and trucks for the same strip of pavement are a motley assortment of two- and three-wheeled vehicles–everything from simple steel-frame bikes and heavily laden pedal-powered carts to motorized scooters…

For all the talk of China’s growing infatuation with automobiles, the world’s most populous nation continues to roll primarily on two wheels–and, increasingly, an electric motor drives them. The China Bicycle Association, a government-chartered industry group in Beijing, estimates that last year manufacturers sold 7.5 million electric bikes nationwide–nearly double the sales in 2003–and they are likely to ship more than 10 million this year. That’s three times as many as the most optimistic projections for auto sales in China.

There’s a powerful desire for motorized personal transportation in China. In addition, especially now as its cities sprawl. The electric bicycle is that attractive option for commuters, service people, and couriers [see photo, “Pizza! Pizza!”]. At 1500 to 3000 yuan (US $180 to $360), an electric bike is buyable at a small fraction of the cost of an automobile. It is also exhilarating. Hop on and crank that throttle. With an electric motor built into the hub wheel watch out. That motor will propel you to speeds of 20 km/h or more.

Despite the obvious appeal of electric bikes, some Chinese cities have banned them altogether. In addition, they alleging environmental drawbacks and concerns about public safety. But that hasn’t stopped millions from buying electric two-wheelers in China—an astonishing development for advocates who have struggled for a decade to build a market for electric bikes in the United States and Europe.

BY Peter Fairley // June 2005