Chinese riders go green with electric bikes, but also live dangerously

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 May, 2014, 2:02am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 May, 2014, 2:28am

Electric bicycles are China's answer to the Prius because they're green, they're zippy and they're cheap. They are also emerging as a safety hazard in a country where road accidents are the biggest killer of young people.

As Chinese cities impose car quotas to fend off record pollution, more residents are turning to rechargeable electric cycles. That is putting a spotlight on e-bikes that snake through traffic as fast as 40km/h, occasionally mowing down pedestrians or taking a hit themselves.

By some estimates, 200 million Chinese now use e-bikes, a 1,000-fold increase from 15 years ago. About 90 per cent of the world's e-bikes were sold in China in 2012, according to Navigant Research, a consulting firm, which estimates that another 249 million will be sold there by 2020. Traffic police treat them like bicycles and riders zip alongside cars and trucks - without ever passing road tests.

"This style of transportation is arguably a solution to the world's mobility problems and China is the testing ground," said Brent Powis, a Beijing-based road safety consultant for the World Health Organisation.

"Now we have to look at how to prevent this public health opportunity from becoming a public health risk."

Research suggests that e-bikes are "involved in crashes at a very high level", possibly because of their speed, Powis said.

A study conducted by researchers at Peking University and other institutions from October 2010 to April 2011 found that e-bikes were involved in 57 per cent of serious nonfatal road accidents treated at a rural hospital in Suzhou. Traumatic brain injuries were sustained by 36 per cent of injured riders.

The government does not give nationwide numbers on costs or other details of e-bike accidents.

Road crashes cost 1 per cent to 5 per cent of gross domestic product in developing countries, World Bank president Jim Yong Kim wrote in the foreword of a March report on the growing burden of all traffic injuries.

Jonathan Bental, an Israeli national living in Beijing, bought an e-bike because it was faster, cheaper transport. A car crashed into him and flung him off two years ago, injuring his foot, he said.

"When you're going at the speeds the e-bikes do, it's not hard to see why accidents happen," he said.

While researchers on the Suzhou report did not detail nationwide trends, they found the average stay in a hospital was 10 days and cost 8,229 yuan (HK$10,338) after traffic accidents.

E-bikes are a home-grown industry for China. As economic reform drove more of the population to the cities, they were seen as an essential way of navigating traffic snarls and long commutes.