China has been one of the main engines of growth for car companies in the last few years. That phenomenal momentum in China's thirst for more autos may be coming to an end, however. Last month sales of cars and light vehicles dropped 23.8% year-over-year, according to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers.
Annual sales of cars in 2011 were still up 5% from 2010, though this is a softening of previous growth, according to
24/7 Wall Street. Inflation pressures and a slight economic slow-down may be to blame for the change in consumption patterns.
Then again, perhaps bicycles are re-emerging as a smarter choice economically. In Shanghai, government staff are now required to leave staff cars at home one day per week, and are encouraged to walk for commutes of one kilometer or less and bike for commutes of three kilometers or less. This so-called "vehicle curfew" is meant to curtail car use and pollution in Shanghai. Beijing also has ambitious goals to control air pollution, and restricting car ownership and taking old, polluting vehicles off the road are two measures currently being used.
That might escalate Chinese e-bike buying habits even further. E-bikes in China come in many flavors, from fancy scooter-like objects to simple bicycles with battery packs hitched to the back rack and are cheaper and less regulated than cars. E-bike ownership has increased more than 85% each year during the last decade. More than 100 million e-bikes are on the roads in China - that's more than all other countries combined.
China is also championing electric car ownership, but with a big majority of electric power produced from coal power plants, the emphasis on electric bikes and electric cars might not enough of a dent in overall pollution.
A recent study done by the University of Minnesota, University of Tennessee and Tsinghua University did find e-bikes, although powered mainly from coal, did still perform better on most emissions metrics than cars, buses, and motorcycles.
In fact the study noted that a change from gas cars to electric cars would increase two emissions metrics in China's coal-centric production situation - carbon dioxide and a specific size of particulates (PM2.5).
Of course, human-powered bicycles would be even better for the air and people's healtht. Currently, about 18.1 percent of commuting in Beijing is done by bike (that's down from 30.3 percent in 2005) and the Municipal Commission of Transport plans to increase the percentage back up to 20 percent in the next three years.