Sunday, March 14, 2010

Electric Bikes May Ease China's Urban Air Pollution - For Now

The BBC reports a dramatic rise of Beijing residents who commute around the city by electric bike. China was, until the mid-1990s, an almost monolithically bicycle-driven society. Along with a decade of spectacular economic growth, however, Chinese cities like Beijing and Shanghai have vastly shifted from bicycles to private cars. The result, not surprisingly, has been unprecedented problems with urban air pollution that threaten both the environment and public health.

With car traffic congestion at all-time highs in many Chinese cities, many residents have chosen electric bikes as a commuting option offering both speed and the opportunity to escape the traffic quagmire.

Legally, "electric bikes" are bikes that are smaller and lighter than motorcycles, traveling at speeds under approximately 15 miles per hour. Electric bikes have been so popular that their popularity in the past year has grown even faster than the leading Chinese car companies.

How long this boom in electric bikes will last depends on long-term Chinese cultural trends. If the Chinese continue to invest in a growing consumer car culture through highway spending and tax incentives, then these bikes may lose cachet with the status-conscious Chinese middle class. However, cities in China and other countries -even those in the developed world - can make use of these electric bikes by integrating them into established bike-sharing programs and improved bicycle infrastructure. If bike infrastructure becomes as lasting and integral a part of the built environment as highways and arterials, then we will be able to forge a path to long-term solutions for greenhouse gas emissions and global warming.

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