E-bikes may be the thing to end our scooter chaos

Oh yes, I was constantly asked, challenged and reprimanded. "Are you cycling in Beijing?" And: "Why don't you ride a bicycle in Beijing?" And then, a line which came out like an insult: "It is good that you don't. You will get hit by a car anyway." Ouch.

Oh yes, I love riding a bicycle. When I was 10, I loved my bicycle so much I took all the pieces apart and could not put them back together. I loved pedalling around my community and trying to increase my distance and find new routes. Nothing, in my opinion, could stir a sense of adventure and love of exploration among young children than bicycles.

Sadly, I hardly cycle after I was almost hit by a public bus while out riding around Sanam Luang many years ago. Then I fell from a slope at Toong Salang Luang National Park during a vacation. I thought I might have two left feet, as they say, and I walked away from my bicycle afterward. Bangkok is too dangerous for me and my biking dream.

In Beijing, I did not ride either and my host begged me to not even try because Beijing has become a hostile place for cyclists, not to mention newcomers with two left feet like me. (It is not a safe place either to cross streets as cars usually ignore traffic lights and pedestrians usually walk across the street while the light is green.)

As my apartment and my office are close to a subway station, I usually walk. And for me, I've discovered that Beijing is a very good place to walk _ blessed with wide and good, even pavements, and absolutely wonderful gardens to sit and linger.

Sadly, it looks like Beijing will soon become a former capital city of bicycles. I first came to this city when I was a kid and was mesmerised by a sea of people on their bicycles. I bet that my cyclist friends back in Bangkok would have their eyes green with envy seeing wide bicycle lanes in Beijing, not to mention abundant space to park near subway stations.

Oh yes, the bicycle culture is still alive in Beijing. But the practice has gradually changed into a form of entertainment and lifestyle. In the old days, people bought cheap and ordinary bicycles to pedal to work. According to report in The Washington Post, 40 million bicycles were sold in 1986, and 20 million in 2009. Fancy and pricey bicycles have become the vogue and people ride for recreational purposes.

But I think two-wheel vehicles are part of the Chinese culture _ it's in their DNA. So bicycles will always find a place in Beijing, albeit in a different version. A new breed of vehicles _ known as electric bicycle or e-bikes, now occupy the streets of Beijing and other big cities, with impressive sales of about 20 million annually right after it became popular four or five years ago. The sales volume has increased steadily.

I fell in love with it instantly. If I moved here permanently, I would definitely buy one right away. The e-bicycle is affordable at 8,000 baht, with rechargeable batteries. It comes in various sizes and models, even a hybrid system with pedals to generate kinetic energy that in turn recharge the batteries. I would say Beijing is soon to become capital city of e-bikes.

"It is really awesome. Look, you just plug in and recharge," said Eric, my colleague, as he plugged a battery in to recharge at the office. His e-bike is absolutely lovely. If you love the Vespa scooter, you will fall in love with it.

And it is convenient. The battery was a portable, the size of a gallon bottle. It took about six hours for recharging and that could power for a few days. Eric had two e-bikes _ one for himself and another for his wife. Yes, Eric _ an athlete who ran a marathon on the Great Wall of China _ owns a bicycle, but for recreation.

The key reason people use more e-bikes is one word: convenience. Unlike bicycles, it runs faster and you can travel much further. It is much cheaper to buy than a car and people are now put off by cars because traffic in Beijing gets worse and worse.

E-bikes allow them to go anywhere. It is like mini-scooter but it does not generate pollution. It ran at 30-40kph maximum and the authorities are trying to cap the speed at 20kph.

But e-bicycles come with drawbacks. Now obesity has become a problem for Beijing and many Chinese citizens in the big cities. In old days, it was Beijingers' way of life to pedal to beautiful parks or nearby mountains for their favourite leisure _ climbing. Now, there is a subway system that connects the whole city. People do not have to sweat pedalling. But their bodies are not as lean as they once were.

I wonder why we do not see more e-bikes in Bangkok? I see it as the way to counter motorcycles that pollute our ears and the air. With lower speeds, they will cause fewer accidents. E-bikes can complement the cyclists' campaign to achieve bicycle lanes for Bangkok too. If more people use electric bicycles, it means the total speed of traffic in Bangkok will be slower and there will be a separate lane for both electric and traditional bicycles. I would not call it an e-bicycle or bicycle lane. I would call it the people's lane.

Anchalee Kongrut is a feature writer for the Life section, currently based in Beijing on the FK journalist exchange programme.

About the author

Writer: Anchalee Kongrut
Position: News Reporter