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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  • SBelectric

    The pictures in this article show the Pedego City Commuter, made mostly in China.  I read an article a few months ago in the L.A. Times about this brand, and electric bikes in general.  After renting a Pedego beach cruiser, I fell in love...so much so that I bought a City Commuter and now bike commute to work a couple of times a week.  Since there are no adequate shower facilities at work, I use the high pedal assist setting so as not to arrive sweaty.  My after-work commute is twice as far along the Pacific ocean.  This allows me a longer workout with lots of fresh air and the best view ever!  I look forward to the bike commute versus being stuck in my metal coffin in rush hour traffic.  The $2800 price tag was well worth it for fresh air, exercise, zero emissions, and not being stuck in traffic!  All of my friends who've tried it want one!!  Let the conversion begin...

  • Terri Reed

    I was in China for 2 mths in 2011 and was impressed with all their ebikes. At age 61, retired, faced with too many hills, I was a has-been bicyclist, but these ebikes inspired me, so I bought one in November 2012. Wow-zowee! It is so much fun! I've biked to grocery stores in the Montana mountains, as well as here in Tucson for the past 3 mths (to the YMCA, groceries, post office, etc.), as well as at my East Texas rural home where I ebike 12 miles one way to get my hair cut and visit neighbors. Once p/mth I run an errand in my lonely truck to keep its battery charged. For the time being, I've gone almost 99 percent ebike in my transportation. BTW I have two panniers on my rear rack which I use for everything. Love it!

  • shawnmon

    Billy, try not to compare these to bicycles, rather compare them to a transportation method, aka "the car".  You'll quickly discover (after riding one and price comparing) that these are incredible solutions, and depending on your terrain (hilly or flat), and your commute distance (long or short) you'll know what price range will suit your needs.
    While $2,500 sounds pricey for a bicycle, it's extremely cheap for a convertible vehicle that requires zero gasoline, zero oil, can pass traffic in bike lanes and other routes, and puts a smile on your face every time, etc, etc.  Mopeds are more expensive and they still cost you gas/oil; you can't pass traffic in a bike lane; you can't ride mopeds on bike trails; you still have to park a moped.... and on and on.
    I'm glad I chose the most expensive option, because had I chose to save a buck, it would have been a waste of every penny spent.  My needs were in long distance/hilly terrains. 
    Go to Rocket Electrics, meet John and Nicole, take a FREE test ride!, and experience this new way of life.  They don't try to talk you into buying anything.  They simply want you to experience it, and they can answer all the questions you have, again, based on your commute needs.
    I did!
    - Austin's 1st Zero-Emissions Realtor

  • billy brown

    this article is seriouslylacking in info. how fast do they go? how far do they go on a charge? how long does it take to recharge the battery? saw how much they cost too much i'll just take the bus

  • cfomni

      I know it was a little while ago, but I came across this article and figured I would try to provide some information for you. Let me preface this by saying I am the owner and operator of an electric bike shop called Long Island Electric Bikes and I have a good amount of experience in this realm. The bikes generally have a max speed of 20mph due to a Federal regulation and the range is usually around 20 miles, depending on a variety of factors including the size of the motor, battery, weight of the rider, the terrain and the style of riding. Recharging usually takes about 3-4 hours. Regarding the cost, generally they range widely, but most quality bikes start at about $1,500 and range up to about $4,000, with some bikes with prices up to about $10,000.

  • jstack6

    Bicycle riders should always safe and go slow near people walking, Obeying traffic laws is a must for ALL vehicles.
    A normal peddle bicycle can meet many needs. The Busette 90% + USA made bicycle is a great choice. It can fold up and become very small for string or parking, The USA made lithium battery just slides out so you can take it inside and not have it stolen or also charge it while you work or are home inside.

    There are lots of good choices. Pick the right one that you will use the most and we all win. Drive safe and we are all happy and accepted.

  • Felix Wang

    As a New Yorker living in Shanghai for the past 4 years, I can confirm that electric bicycles are extremely widespread in China.  But it is not due to Green-factor.  They are cheaper than motor bicycles (i.e., "mopeds") and I think even more important, do not require a license to drive/ride (unlike motorized versions).  This article is mis-leading in this way.  Also, we call these e-bikes, "Silent Killers" because you don't hear them approaching you from behind -- not good when walking on the side walk in China cities as you need to really be paying attention to your surrounding to doge the general chaos.

  • DJ

    Electric bikes are a sensible way to commute. Rocket Electrics has some great photos!

  • Rich

    Ebikes are the most realistic blessing a city could hope for. Cut air pollution to next to nothing (or none if you choose Austin Energy's green plan), make bike commuting realistic for many people, drastically reduce traffic congestion, and improve safety. The problem riders in NYC are not even US citizens likely, and it has nothing to with a bike being electric. ebike riders can be called more likely to stop for stop signs since it doesn't take so much pedaling to get going again. I love my ebike.

  • Steve

    These are most certainly all over Manhattan - used mainly by food delivery men. They look like a blast to ride, especially in a suburban environment. Unfortunately their riders do not follow the traffic laws and routinely blow through lights and ride the wrong way and generally wreak havoc with traffic, foot, bike, motorcycles and cars. I recall reading somewhere that NYC was changing its bicycle laws to cover electric bikes in some way.

  • Shaya

    In Ditmas Park, Brooklyn I see many restaurants providing food delivery are making use of eBikes. Just observing what's parked on the sidewalk infront of these establishments is an education. It seems, at least in the area of eBikes, services that provide delivery are ahead of the curve.

  • Court Rye

    I bought a bike from Rocket Electrics in Austin this past year and had a great experience with Nicole. My bike is actually the same as the white one shown in the pictures :D it looks almost like a regular bike and is pretty powerful... but a bit expensive. You can rent from them and also check out the reviews on the bike at http://electricbikereview.com/...