Should E-Bikes Be Banned? 4 Lessons From Asia's E-Bike Craze

People-powered versus electric powered - it all goes in the same lane in China. Photo avlxyz via flickr.

The Dutch bought more e-bikes during the first part of 2009 than they did regular bicycles. In Asia, e-bikes have enjoyed run-away sales for some time. But the downside to an e-bike (aside from the askance glances of the pedal-pushing bikers in the bike lane) is that the extra speed, power, and amazingly varied form factor in e-bikes seems to be exacerbating some concerns - pollution as well as safety issues. What's there to learn from the Asian experience? Read on.
This lovely French-Italian E.Solex epitomizes one of the quandaries - should it really be called an e-bike?

1.Power to the people. But how much?

One issue is to figure out what exactly constitutes an e-bike. Europe's designation is that the 'bike' have no larger than a 250-watt electric motor and a speed cut off at 25 km/h. Compare that to California where the motor can be up to 1,000 watts. Common sense would dictate an e-bike is a bicycle with an electric, pedal-assisted motor. But in China, whizzing electric things that most of us would call a scooter or might even feel like is a full-fledged motorbike as it zooms by, are designated 'e-bikes' and share the bike path. Also, speed limits are rarely enforced. Having a strict (and perhaps global) definition of what an e-bike is, what size of motor it should have and how fast it should go, as well as governing laws, is far from a done deal. But it's a critical issue, especially as designers begin to play with the concept of bicycles as this electric penny farthing does.

"Ultimately, you can find an e-bike that falls along the entire spectrum between e-bicycle and e-scooter/motorbike and it is difficult to draw a strict line," says Chris Cherry, who studies electric bikes and their environmental effects.


Where are the pedals? Photo via Chris Cherry.

2. No pedal power? Shouldn't really be an e-bike.

The most ersatz of the 'e-bikes' are the many, many electric scooters-style bikes now being produced in China and some other Asian nations. In the picture, as Cherry notes, the bikes are styled to look like motorcycles with lots of extra chrome and plastic, but classified as bikes. China is pushing these as e-bikes in part because they have lower emissions and are more multi-tasking than bicycles - they can carry more than one passenger and handle lots of cargo. Cherry himself uses one of these to carry his family of four around town when he is in China. But if a 'vehicle' doesn't have working pedals, should the vehicle be able to call itself a bike? Thus far, the U.S. says no, Asia generally says yes, and Ontario and Europe are not quite decided.

Lots lower CO2 than a car, but not quite a bike. Photo Chris Cherry.

3. Is banning e-bikes from the bike lanes stupid?

China has gone through a rapid and curious evolution - in Beijing, where 9 million bikes once made this city the 'bicycle kingdom,' bike lanes have been sacrificed in the name of road and highway construction. E-bikes were for a time successfully banned in Beijing (and later re-allowed) as well as in Fujian province (in Singapore, they aren't banned but require a license). And Toronto, after a three-year pilot study, will decide whether to ban e-bikes from the bike lanes next month. Banning may help human-powered cyclists have a friendlier experience on bike lanes, but it doesn't reduce car trips. This is important for all nations - this study concluded that e-bikes perform very well on pollution and emissions metrics when compared to cars, though not much better than fully-loaded buses and definitely not better than regular bikes.Cherry said he prefers letting all electric-powered bikes and scooters share the bike lanes (and thus reduce the number of cars), as long as the rules are clear and the speeds remain low.


Side by side, Chinese bike and its electric powered cousin. Photo via Poida.Smith @ flickr.

4. There's a pollution paradox.

Japan has a strong e-bike market, as does China. But it is in China, where the bulk of e-bikes are manufactured, that the pollution paradox comes into play. The e-bikes cut CO2 and particulates, but many of them increase lead pollution form the commonly-used lead acid batteries. According to Christopher Cherry, e-bikes result in more emissions of lead, comparably, than cars. This increased lead pollution at source will decrease as e-bike manufactures switch to alternative battery technologies. But as this report notes, even with 100% recycling, production of a medium-sized e-bike emits 420 milligrams of lead into the environment, and the small-scale lead-mining operations that are the cause are difficult to regulate effectively.

Read more about electric bikes at TreeHugger
Are Electric Bikes Still Controversial?
Is My Electric Bicycle Lame?
Electric Bike Review: We Ride the Pacific Electric E-Bike Terra 7-Speed
DIY Electric Bike Uses Advanced Power Drill Batteries (DeWalt NANO-Phosphate)

Tags: Bikes | Biking | Urban Life