Electric Bikes Have Invaded China. Is The U.S. Next?

There are tens of millions of battery-assisted bikes on the road in China, but they barely exist here. What will it take to get people out of cars and onto these bikes that you don’t even have to really pedal so hard?

China, long defined by scenes of its masses commuting to (grim, state-owned) factories on (grim, stated-designed) bicycles, has wildly embraced the car. The Chinese automobile market will be larger than the U.S., Japan, and Germany combined by 2015, estimates Bloomberg, accounting for more than 25 million cars each year.

Yet the bicycle is making a massive comeback in the country—the electric bike, that is. Electric bike sales in China now eclipse sales of any other form of transportation. As recently as the 1990s, only about 150,000 e-bikes were sold in China. Last year, annual sales hit 25 million (92% of the global market). At least 120 million e-bikes are already on Chinese roads, and sales are only growing thanks to a combination of falling prices, improving technology (companies have to invest heavily in R&D to differentiate themselves since IP is so easily pirated), clusters of bicycle factories, and strong market demand.

But here in the U.S., the market is still getting in gear. Electric bikes—customized bicycles powered by a combination of batteries and pedals—are still not on the minds of the masses. Many who commute or want to get around have written off bikes as too physically demanding or risky for their daily commute.
That’s not true with e-bikes, argues Nicole Zinn, owner of Rocket Electrics in Austin, Texas, who was inspired to open her shop after a trip to China. The problem, she argues, is largely awareness. "People don’t know that electric bikes exist, and if they have heard of them, many of them haven’t actually ridden one," Zinn writes by email. "It’s not that people don’t like the experience—people fall in love with our bikes at the first twist of the throttle, they just don’t know that they are an option."

To reach this new demographic of (electric) bikers is the challenge. Zinn is running e-bike rentals out of her shop to turn car commuters into bikers by teaching a new audience that biking is not just for athletes. Despite Austin’s sweltering mid-100-degree summer temps, rolling hills, and "soul-crushing" traffic that rivals L.A., she’s seeing business pick up quarter after quarter with her range of e-bikes retailing for $1,100 to $2,500, and even repeat customers buying e-bikes for their partners, friends, and teenagers to ride. Austin Energy has also pledged to give Rocket Electric customers a $100 to $150 rebate for buying an e-bike.

So far, the largest customer group is former-car commuters (a daily activity we now know is most injurious to happiness). But a growing number are discovering e-bikes for recreation, and then switching to them for the rest of their transportation needs. Zinn says her customers include a full-time pedicabber, a teacher who couldn’t stand her commute (she’s doing 60 miles per day on ebikes and Metrorail), a college professor who has lost 20 pounds, and a mom who started e-bike grocery runs and now totes her kids to school with it (her blog is Free Range). 

Still, getting Americans out of their cars on e-bikes promises to be an uphill battle: lack of urban infrastructure in cities, worries about road safety, and old habits remain.

Fortunately, Zinn says, e-bikes sell themselves once people have a chance to try them, and there’s global momentum: E-bikes are now the world’s fastest selling electric vehicle expected to hit 47 million annually by 2018.

"We like selling inspiration," says Zinn. "Not everyone can say that." 

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