Our Chinese correspondent* has sent us some thoughts about the transport environment in Shanghai:

The biggest surprise of my trip has been the huge number of electric bikes and electric scooters – many powered by lead acid batteries.  They are almost completely quiet and hum along the pedestrian-cycle paths on the sides of all the roads.  There are no gasoline motorcycles at all.

China bicycle parking

The e-bikes are mainly completely powered (no e-assist) and go quite fast.  At night no one uses the lights – probably to save batteries – so you have to quite careful on the footpaths.  Because it is winter the scooters have permanently attached large gloves on the handles – sort of like over-sized oven mitts as well as poncho like shields attached to the front.  Also not uncommon to see people tootling along holding an umbrella…

China scooter with hand warmers

[* My father, who is currently on a business trip over there.]

China is currently the largest market for electric bikes and scooters. Although car sales have taken off in China over the last decade, e-bike sales have taken off faster:

Worldwide e-bike sales in 2010 estimated to be 24 million. About 300,000 in USA, about 700,000 in Europe, 1.2 million in India, Japan and Taiwan, and 21.6 million in China!


Electric bike sales have grown far faster than the sales of any other mode of transportation in China, from a modest 150,000 units sold in the late 90s to more then 20 million today. That’s three times as many as the most optimistic projections for cars sales in China for the near future.


Given population density and poor air quality in China’s large cities, it’s easy to see the attraction of e-bikes for both individuals and policymakers. They don’t contribute directly to smog and they don’t take up much space.

There’s been some speculation about whether China will import US-style auto-centric transport habits as it develops. However, it might make more sense for China to export its e-bike-heavy transport mix to other cities in Asia and Africa that are facing similar issues of bad air and overcommitted road space.

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  1. The electric mopeds really are a cost effective way to get around. Obviously better suited to flatter routes but my colleagues and I contemplated bringing some back home after working in China. Luckily no one ended up in hospital but there were a number of reasonably serious injuries. There is little difference in restrictions from what I could work out between riding these and walking (outdoors at least), all footpaths are fair game and there is generally space to park right outside the door of the supermarket/restaurant/bar until you’re ready to head home.

  2. I’ve been cycling in Shanghai and it was one of the scariest transport experiences of my life.

    Imagine cycling in a never ending peloton with hundreds of unskilled cyclists who have no idea what they’re doing. If you leave 1/8th of a gap someone will cut you off. The concept of merging and adherence to any rules that may exist are totally foreign.

    I sincerely hope I never see anything similar in New Zealand!

    1. I was cycling in Shanghai in mid Nov (only 8 weeks ago) and had completely the opposite experience. Cycled all over Shanghai over a 7 day period – on the wide cycle lanes along every major arterial route and on normal roads and backstreets. Also cycled in Beijing and Hangzhou for 4 days in each city along similar road infra. Not once did I encounter any of what you describe. All cyclists around me (incl lots and lots of e-scooters) were skilled, courteous and the whole experience was absolutely wonderful. These cheap e-bikes and scooters are fantastic and we need them in NZ ASAP, along with Chinese bike culture – CN could definitely teach NZ how to share the roads better.

      1. I spent a couple of days cycling around Amsterdam last week. What a nightmare. Cyclists have the right of way over cars – stupid – and seem to think they can pull out onto roads with impunity. Riding, often while smoking spliffs, one woman was smoking at 8am (to work?) and most don’t bother with lights. I hope Auckland never follows that insanity.

          1. I don’t find TomTom’s data particularly insightful, but many people who care a lot about congestion do put some stock in it.

            As for smoking on bicycles: It’s legal in the Netherlands and certainly less harmful than driving while under the influence. As Amsterdam’s roads are safer than Auckland’s, regardless of whether you’re on foot, on a bike, or in a car, I don’t think it’s a major issue.

          2. Did you know there are cars in Amsterdam Patrick. Those stonners and their big heavy bikes can ride into pedestrians or cars. It is totally disingenuous of you to suggest smoking spliffs and riding a bike in Amsterdam is safe. Put away your straw man arguments and accept that not every cyclist is a saint.

        1. With bicycles you can have a bit more chaos without too much risk of carnage. They are much lighter, slower and manoeuvrable than cars. You’ll get used to it after a while.

          Now, replace ‘bicycles’ with ‘cars’ and ‘Amsterdam’ with ‘Auckland’, and you’ll basically have the same conclusion.

        2. Your anecdotal characterisation of cycling in amsterdam does not match with my experiences, nor is it supported by data on accident rated. In fact cycling here is so safe that many young people (e.g. 8 year olds) are allowed to cycle unsupervised.

          P.s. I’ve lived in amsterdam for almost two years.

          1. Lets go for a bike ride next month and compare notes. Every cyclist we see riding at night without a light you buy me a beer. Every cyclist we see smoking a spliff I will buy you one. Could be a lot of beers 😀

          2. No need to compare notes – fact is youre wrong and the data confirms it. You also seem to be confusing two seperate issues: 1) adherence to rules and 2) general safety. It may be that many cyclists dont follow road rules (like drivers), yet it’s still safe for cyclists.

          3. And it’s safe for cyclists because most are travelling at very civilised speeds. And are likely only a danger to themselves. Which is perfectly ok.

        3. No one is comfortable in Amsterdam after 2 days – after a couple of weeks everything clicks and you forget that it was ever a problem. If it was as awful as you suggest it seems unlikely that there would be the number of people partaking.

        4. The closest I got to seeing bicycling levels like the Netherlands was when studying in Leuven. This is a small city with a big university and a couple of other tertiary schools, so during the academic year maybe 1/3 of the population are students. And among students, bicycling has a close to 100% mode share.

          Now, think Amsterdam level cycling, but without the infrastructure. In the city centre you usually have to ride on the street. And I wouldn’t say students ride in an orderly way either.

          This is one reason why people don’t like it if they have to do their practical driving test there — the testing officers are as strict as anywhere else about things like giving cyclists enough space, and that when giving way to traffic from your right, that traffic includes cyclists.

          I also learned that when building a shared path, 3 metres ought to be wide enough for anyone. The typical path on our campus is a bit under 3 metres wide, and is shared by bicycles and pedestrians. With what traffic engineers would call “heavy traffic flow” when the lectures were about to start. Most bicycles went in the same direction towards the auditoriums, but there was the odd guy riding the other way, and some people were on foot as well. And, to make things more interesting, near the exit of the campus there’s a pole in the middle of the path to keep cars out. But as far as I remember it all worked without big accidents.

          So there as well I would expect you need some time go get used to it, especially if you come from a bicycle-free city like Auckland.

      1. Extremely similar.

        Traffic lights operated but nobody appeared to take any notice of them!

        Once you get your head around how they do things you realise it’s far superior to here. In Shanghai the traffic moves (peak times aside) whereas in Auckland we seem hell bent on making driving as inconvenient as possible.

    2. So it’s number of cyclists that are the problem, not the population density and competition for transit space?

      I’m not convinced.

      I would agree that we could see this in NZ, once our population density increases by several orders of magnitude.

      So that we may plan ahead, could you describe the better options/solutions that would achieve the same efficiency of public transit space in terms of cost, volume and convenience?

    3. I spent a morning cycling around Bangkok recently. The streets were congested and people didn’t really have much respect for painted cycle lanes. However, I didn’t feel unsafe in traffic – people kept their heads on a swivel and generally didn’t merge/turn dangerously. (Unlike in NZ.)

      The worst part about it was the air pollution from two-stroke scooters and old buses and cars. If more people were riding bikes and electric scooters, that would have been much better.

  3. When I was riding my e-bike home last night after a few beers I was wondering why more people don’t have them. They have to be one of the most fun, cheap and convenient ways to get around… Bring on more cycle lanes and more places to safely park.

    1. Yes indeed. Brothers Beer over in the City Works depot is going to see more of me on sunny afternoons now that I can cycle down there on the Nelson St cycleway.

    1. All the cities I’m aware of banned 2 stroke scooters a long time ago. There used to be many many bicycles but these have largely been replaced by cars and e-bikes. Most Chinese cities are on the flat plains, like Christchurch. I agree that e-bikes are a hazard to pedestrians, you have to keep looking in every direction all the time. I’ve seen quite a few accidents of varying degrees of squashed person on the road. It’s a bit sad when they get stripped of their clothes and just left there at night in the rain, with police in their car looking over

  4. I had mitts like that on my motorbike when I lived in the UK. I also had electric gloves. None of that really worked, though.

    Also, be prepared for a flood of cheap petrol scooters in NZ if they get banned in more Chinese cities.

  5. And yet oil demand in China enjoys a staggering growth that is set to continue. China’s 2016 oil demand forecast has been raised due to higher gasoline numbers. The IEA’s latest data show a more rapidly expanding gasoline fleet, with demand next year rising by 0.2 mb/d.

    1. Nope Phil, the rate of growth of car sales in China is slowing. And anyway, it is simply spatially impossible for Chinese car ownership levels to get anwhare near western ones. 1.5 billion people will never all be car owners. Oil demand China is hardly staggering currently, the rate of growth too is softer than recent years. And of course given the recent price crash this is the best possible chance for oil demand growth everywhere, and for most of the world it’s not even on population growth. So demand per capita is falling. And with a price reversal? How soft will it be?

      1. Sorry Patrick, I forgot that you are an oil expert.
        Growth at any percentage means more than before. People are very foolish to read ‘oil demand growth has declined’ and think this is bearish. If China bought 100 million tonnes of transport fuel in 2014 and growth had slowed from 7% to 1% it would still mean they bought 101 million tonnes in 2015. In any case Patrick, whilst all transport fuel demand is up in China, Petrol demand is really out performing diesel. This is because there is less industrial activity but an expanding private vehicle fleet.
        When are you expecting this price reversal to start Patrick? Crude has more chance at the moment of breaking through $25.00 than rising above $30.00, even so, the oil producers would have to really cut back (which they cant afford to do) in order to send prices above $50/bbl, and that is less than half the cost it was 12 months ago when lots of people were buying cars.

        1. A slowing rate of growth is still a slow down on the previous growth, and you claimed, ‘expert’ that you are, that the growth was staggering. So, as ever, you are misleading and exaggerating; making up nonsense.

          1. Patrick, do you know how much oil is 0.2mb/d? New Zealand’s entire consumption of petrol (2010 latest figures) was 54 thousand barrels a day. China’s increase in consumption is 200 thousand barrels a day. Do you not find that staggering?
            I refer to the simple explanation above: Growth = more than.
            I am not misleading anyone. I am not exaggerating and I am certainly not making anything up.

        1. My guess on the slowing down of car sales and the increase in petrol demand is the emergence of the used car market in China. I could be wrong but it explains the discrepancy.

  6. Lead acid batteries still have a role in reducing congestion and carbon reduction. I have being thinking about stretched mobility scooters which could be used on footpaths, roads and cycle lanes. Something like 4 km per hour on footpaths 10 km /hour on cycleways and 15 on road. Pillion style with room for mum dad and two kids. You could use more modern battery technology off course but at a price and with questions over their life.

  7. A month ago I returned from a 4 week tour of the 7 main cities in China (all had big metro systems). I did not see any petrol driven scooters apart from Hong Kong. Further measures to limit emissions were extensive. Diesel buses were a rarity, being either gas (CNG LPG) or electric (mostly battery). Taxis were gas as well. Incandescent bulbs are virtually non existent. Private homes I visited had the heating turned off. In spite of all these measures the bad air was the size of France. Part of the problem is that there is little wind and rain in Northern China during the winter. Pretty astonishing for a Kiwi! Auckland’s air would not compare well under similar weather conditions. PT fares were cheap. Buses nearly always 2 yuan (40c). Next stop info in English as well as Chinese. You could use your “HOP” card to hire public bicycles. First hour free.
    It would appear that they are going further than anyone else to try to reduce their emissions.

    1. Yes I think Auckland is really starting to fall behind the rest of the world.
      There seems to be no one pushing alternatives to driving. We still have loud smelly smoky buses, most of our city centre is made of tarmac, and we think it is a big deal when we give up one lane of a five lane road to cycling (with many thinking that is a step too far). There is almost nowhere to safely park a bike, so cycling is almost exclusively a sport. Our government is about to spend $6 billion on yet another road when for that money they could significantly improve PT to the point where Auckland might not have the worst PT system in the world.
      There is nowhere where young people can afford to live near the city or uni, and if they can, their flat will probably be uninsulated and single glazed. Our plan to fix this is to build high density housing as far from the city as possible because we don’t want to offend the rich.

  8. In china, electric hoverboard and segway alike electric personal vehicle is very popular and selling like hot cakes there.
    They are not just a toy, but a practical day to day commute device.

    Thats why china company xiaomi acquire segway (for the patent) and release low cost (few hundreds $) segway (such as xiaomi nine bot) to make those device a commodity for everyone.

    In western countries, politicians are still having conservative debate whether to allow them on the road, where chinese already years ahead.

  9. E-bikes are certainly an idea whose time has come. I got my first in 2009 and my second is still going strong as my main commuting vehicle. However, I may have to replace it soon as the guy who used to repair that brand in Browns Bay just retired and I can’t write to New Plymouth for parts.

    1. You touch on an interesting point – currently the aftermarket support for electric bikes is very poor. We don’t train and therefore we don’t have electric bike mechanics. Bike shops can do the bike bits, but mostly throw their hands up in the air at the electrical side. Surely bike technician training is a qualification opportunity for some polytech out there?

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