SHANGHAI, China—A lot of riders in the bicycle lanes of China's cities and towns have given up pedaling and are zipping along on silent electric bicycles.
Sales have skyrocketed, and China is now the global leader in this inexpensive form of motorized transportation. At least 1,000 companies have sprung up to meet the demand.
Sales have almost doubled every year, said Ma Qingyi, the vice general manager of Shanghai Cranes Electric Vehicle Co., a major manufacturer.
Last year, Chinese bought 16 million to 18 million electric bicycles, up from 10 million the year before. Some see sales hitting 25 million to 30 million this year. But so far, the diandong zixingche, as the bike is called here, is a unique Chinese phenomenon, with limited export appeal.
"`Booming' is maybe too mild a word," said Ed Benjamin, the president of Cycle Electric, an international consulting group based in Fort Myers, Fla. "It's a product that really suits the needs of the Chinese consumer."
In many major cities, electric bicycles now make up 10 to 20 percent of all two-wheeled vehicles on the roads, a trend that could have an impact on the nation's rising greenhouse-gas emissions and poor air quality.
Many Chinese cities, including Shanghai, with its population of 20 million, have banned motorcycles and motor scooters as dangerous and polluting, giving a huge sales boost to what the bike trade has dubbed e-bikes.
Rising gasoline prices, crowded public buses and congested roadways have contributed to the surge in electric bicycles, as has the emergence of a consumer class with climbing income that's still unable to afford cars. The e-bikes enable people to commute longer distances, allowing them more freedom in where they choose to live.
A simple electric bicycle has a battery that can power a rider along for 25 to 30 miles before needing a recharge. Recharging the battery requires eight hours.
Riders find they can recover the outlay for electric bicycles over a year.
"They spend less than 2,000 yuan (about $260) to buy an electric bike, and they don't have to pay for public transportation," Ma said. "Some people pay 10 yuan (about $1.30) a day in public transportation. An e-bike costs just a few cents a day."
Experts say e-bikes can run 30 miles on 5 cents' worth of electricity, a rate of energy consumption that makes them even more efficient than fully occupied buses.
Lax enforcement of regulations allows manufacturers to sell a huge variety of electric vehicles under the rubric of electric bikes, including those that look like motor scooters. National regulations limit the weight of the bikes to 88 pounds and the speed to 12 mph. But manufacturers routinely flout the weight limit, and vendors often alter the motors' governors, letting the vehicles zip along at 20 to 25 mph.
As a result, cities such as Fuzhou, Guangzhou and Zhuhai have banned electric bikes, saying they go too fast. But that may not last long. Beijing lifted a ban on the electric bicycle early last year after it was in effect for only a few days.
"They can't stop it now. Look at Beijing. They shut it down but they had to open it (the market) up again. You can't stop what consumers want," said Percy J. Chien, the Taiwanese chief executive of Wettsen, a high-end electric bicycle manufacturer.
Those studying the phenomenon in China give it a positive review.
"It's giving poor and middle-class people more mobility. But it's not exacerbating the air-quality problems in the city," said Jonathan Weinert, who lives in Shanghai while he's preparing a doctoral dissertation on e-bikes for the University of California at Davis.
They're also being modified for other uses, such as delivery vehicles.
"They are getting faster and faster, and heavier and heavier," Weinert said.
The main reservations that environmentalists have about e-bikes are the pollution that their lead-acid batteries can cause if they aren't recycled, and the indirect pollution: China's electric power plants mostly use coal as fuel.
Outside China, sales of electric bicycles remain low. Some 100,000 units a year are sold in the United States, and about as many in Europe. Other Asian countries with high population densities, such as India, Vietnam and Thailand, may turn to e-bikes eventually to cut back on polluting scooters, Weinert said.
For now, China's electric bike manufacturers focus largely on the domestic market, offering a huge array of models, including cargo-bearing tricycles for farmers.
At a recent bicycle and e-bike trade show in Shanghai, e-bike models for export looked nothing like those for domestic sale. Ma pointed to one model for export to Europe, with a slim battery pack, and said Chinese would never touch it.
"They look at this model and say, `It looks like a bicycle. It's not worth much,'" Ma said, adding that Chinese prefer e-bikes decked out to look like scooters.
Foreigners, on the other hand, especially Europeans, prefer not to flaunt that they're getting help from a motor, so they want models that appear to be bicycles.
"The European consumer thinks, `I don't want people to think I'm so old and feeble that I need a motor to push me around,'" said Benjamin, the e-bike consultant.