New York City; a place that is so clogged with traffic gridlock, that almost anything, even a Segway would be preferable to a street-hogging car (or a limo). Half a world away in Shanghai, China, hip 50-year-old corporate-types, sick of their three-hour commutes in second gear, hop on to something that’s even better than a Segway – a battery-powered bicycle, built for long-distance commutes – and speed silently away, the wind in their hair, all dressed up in a suit ready for the executive grind. New York hasn’t yet decided whether to officially allow the battery-powered bicycle motor on its streets; but not all places in America are hanging back; California, with its world-leading environmental awareness laws, certainly loves it. And so do most countries in Europe.
Transportation plans in any country are long-term, complicated, and involve the government. Electric bikes somehow seem to have stormed in, completely oblivious of all the existing interests established in the car, and public transportation. They give you a cheap, effortless, maintenance-free transportation experience that the government seems to have had no part of. The electric bicycle motor, first came up in China, surprisingly, back in the 90s. China has traditionally been a country of bicycles; and the cheap battery bicycle that costs around $500, seemed to them to be a natural step up, an aspirational and practical product.
A billion population, most of whom need bicycles, is a godsend to every industry involved; as China’s bicycling industry began to switch to the bicycle motor, their industry matured, and pretty soon, the rest of the world began to look to China for this original and imaginative innovative way out of their pollution problems. When they first began to show up in Europe, these flashy scooterette-like machines really shook the market up. People found remarkable how the silent bicycle motor made rides seem almost as if they were gliding on air. In a city like San Francisco, with all its slopes and inclines, an electric bicycle just becomes the great road equalizer. And it is just as popular with manufacturers and bicycle retailers. Typically, when a shop sells a bicycle, that is the last he hears of the customer, for a good long time. A bicycle motor however, is powered by a battery, that needs replacement from time to time. All the better to make a service charge off.
The Netherlands and France have always been bicycle country; and in the last two years alone, these have taken over traditional bicycle sales. Back home, the bicycle designer Gary Fisher, is selling a great made-in-Wisconsin design at Best Buy across California and Oregon. Baby boomers with discretionary income, are really welcoming this innovation. In the US, they don’t resemble the snappy scooterette design seen in the rest of the world. They really do look like bicycles, and the bicycle motor kicks in only when going uphill or into a headwind. They can go at about 15 miles an hour, and can sometimes go as far as 50 miles before they need to recharge. But still, most states, like New York, haven’t actually legalized them. They don’t quite know what to make of these.
They are non-polluting, but the lead in the batteries are rarely safely disposed of; they can’t put them on the bicycle path in the cities, and they can’t put the street where they would be too slow. When the government in China tried banning them from the bike paths, there was such an outcry, that they had to allow them back. But more and more people get caught in accidents involving people irresponsibly revving up their bicycle motor, for extra fun. But the surprising thing is, the New York doesn’t actually seem to be giving people any traffic tickets for driving these non-permitted vehicles.