Electric Bicycles Become Urban Transport Success

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions


A money-saving way to get about has emerged in China: the electric bicycle. It seems an excellent solution to the travel needs of people in fast-growing metropolises. The bikes are good at navigating traffic gridlock, and since they are electric they do not emit air pollution, a big problem in many cities.

With urban populations ballooning across the South – and the world now a majority urban place – the challenge of moving people around economically and cleanly is a big issue. While turning to cars seems an appealing option for people who have raised their incomes, the resulting traffic jams and pollution are a major drawback. Gridlock ( is a daily reality in cities across Asia and Africa.

The success of e-bikes in China is striking: It is estimated there are four times more electric bikes than cars in the country, 120 million in all. According to the Electric Bikes website (, the number of electric bicycles produced each year has grown from 200,000 eight years ago to 22 million in 2008. It is estimated to be a US $11 billion a year business: a true Southern success story that is going around the world.

A typical electric bicycle has a rechargeable power pack, with a battery that takes up to four hours to charge and lasts from an hour to two hours depending on local conditions, like hills. The batteries can range from heavy lead acid models (around only 100 charges) to nickel metal to lightweight, long-lasting lithium batteries. The batteries range from 12 volts to 36 volts. How long a battery lasts depends on its energy retention ability, road and temperature conditions and the rider’s weight.

And while some cities are turning to encouraging more peddle power with human-powered bicycles, this is an unappealing option in hot or humid climates. Who wants to turn up at work hot and sweaty?

In China, a highly competitive market of manufacturers has sprung up in the last 10 years to provide e-bikes for every taste and need.

China has a long tradition as a cycling nation: in the 1980s, four out of five commuters used bicycles. But that changed dramatically as people bought cars with their rising incomes.

In the capital, Beijing, rapid economic development and rising incomes have led to serious traffic congestion. There are over 4 million cars on Beijing’s roads. The pollution in the city is very bad and has led to various campaigns to ban high-polluting vehicles.

The ensuing traffic gridlock means the benefits of having a private vehicle – the freedom to get around on your own – are eroded as a driver wastes time in long commutes. So, many have turned to the nimble electric bicycles.

One resident, David Dai, told the BBC “It takes only 10 minutes to ride my electric bike from home to work.”

“If I took the bus, I’d have to spend time waiting for it, and then I could be trapped in a traffic jam. It could take me half an hour to make the same journey.”

Competition is fierce in the electric bike market, with shops sometimes sitting side-by-side.

A manager of a Beijing electric bicycle store, Zhang Zhiyong, puts the success down to this: “Beijing is not like other smaller cities – it’s big. If people ride their bicycles to work, they get really tired. If they drive to work, the roads are often congested,” he told the BBC.

“But an electric bike is environmentally friendly and convenient. Promoting the use of these bikes would benefit us all.”

And the price is a definite incentive: just 2,680 yuan (US $390), while cars sell for thousands of dollars.

The electric bicycles are so successful they are now growing faster than cars in a country that has become the fastest growing car market in the world.

Some believe the bikes are just a stop gap before people get enough money to buy automobiles. But the bigger trend of growing urban populations and the ensuing traffic jams will ensure they remain a practical option to get around the gridlock.

Published: April 2010


1) Electric Bike Website: Home to news and links to manufacturers. Also lots of resources on how to convert peddle bikes into electric bikes. Website:

2) The Luyuan Electric Vehicle Company of Jinhua City in China has been making the bikes for 10 years. They come fully equipped with lights, baskets, fenders and in many colours. Website:

3) Empowered Ebikes: An online retailer of e-bikes specializing in urban commuters. Website:

4) A large list of e-bike manufacturers in China and how to contact the dealers and manufacturers. Website:

5) Pedego: An American company making high-end e-bikes. Website:

Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator. 

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© David South Consulting 2022

By David South Consulting

David South Consulting is an international development media and consulting service. Designing human development and health. Editor and writer of Southern Innovator.



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