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Although the ebike market in Europe is booming, China is where most ebikes are sold: 32 million in 2016 alone, that’s about 80% of the entire global ebike market. But this isn’t the whole story. As everyone and his dog knows by now, China has been through one of the greatest economic booms in history over the last 40 years and with this has come waves of changes to how people get around, especially in the big cities where many ebikes are found. Whereas bicycles dominated city streets in the 1980s, it was motorbikes that boomed in the 1990s, and ebikes in the 2000s. But over the last 10 years or so there has been another shift to subway systems, world-leading high speed rail and the personal car. Change is afoot again for China’s two-wheelers. For these reasons, analysts reckon that the giant Chinese ebike market, will dip slightly over the next few years to just under 30 million sales per year by 2025.

Annual E-Bike Sales, China and the Rest of the World, 2016-2025 (source: Navigant Research)

Out with the old, in with the new

But that’s not the whole story. Most of these sales in the past have been for low cost ebikes that look and behave much more like electric scooters; they do have pedals but are mostly operated with a twist throttle. Costing as little as $200 (about a tenth the cost of the average ebike in Europe), they have become one of the cheapest ways to navigate China’s booming cities and have found a new lease of life as the workhorses of China’s thriving online shopping industry where companies compete to deliver parcels to your door as quickly as possible. But they are also starting to struggle to find their place on the road between bicycles and the growing number of cars with a number of city governments introducing restrictions against ebike use or threatening to do so

More exciting has been the emergence of a new generation of true pedal assisted bikes from innovative Chinese startups like Xiaomi and Tsinova that are more akin to what we see in Europe. These are cleverly engineered ebikes, often with smartphone connectivity, designed with modern Chinese cities firmly in mind. They have seen very healthy sales amongst more tech-savvy Chinese urbanites and have the backing of deep-pocketed investors: Tsinova raised €20 million in August 2016 and the Qicycle is backed by Xiaomi who command global revenues in excess of $12 billion.

The Xiaomi Qicycle: an example of the new generation of Chinese ebikes (source: Xiaomi)

Ebikes in Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong: Popularity grows despite stricter rules

Ebikes have gained popularity elsewhere as well. In Japan, where rules are similar to those in the EU, the number of ebikes produced domestically has doubled to over 0.5 million in the 10 years to 2016. In a country where space in cities is often at a premium and finding parking space for a car is a distant dream for many, bicycles offer a practical way to get around. Most of these are affectionately known as “mamachari” (literally “mama bike”) and can be seen being used everywhere, whether it’s to drop kids off at school or pick up groceries from the local shop. Electric assist has proven a practical upgrade to help get these robust utility bikes moving. They are also easy to get set up on: similar to Europe, Japanese ebikes that assist the rider’s pedaling are treated as normal bikes whereas those that can be operated with a throttle face restrictions similar to those for scooters.

Some other East Asian countries where space is limited have followed a similar path. Singapore, where ebikes fall under the class of PMDs (personal mobility devices), recently adopted a set of regulations similar to those in Japan and the EU, such as limiting motors to 250W and a maximum assisted speed of 25km/h, with the additional rule that all ebikes must be registered and carry a license plate.

Others cities, like Hong Kong, have taken a very different track and banned ebikes completely, citing concerns about safety and product quality. Whilst there are poor quality ebikes out there, we feel that this is an overreaction: modern ebike designs and regulations are more than enough to keep you safe.

Each to their own

When talking about ebikes in East Asian countries, the phrase ebike itself is pretty unhelpful as it can mean so many different things. The typical ebike that you see in China, where almost all are throttle controlled, will be completely different to the one you see in Japan, where many are pedal assisted. For this reason, we tend to think about these countries very differently to each other, let alone to Europe, when it comes to ebikes. Of course though, whatever differences there may be, we still think that ebikes are the best way to see any city from street level and would highly recommend that you try the different styles for yourself next time you get the chance!
 
 
Other blog posts in this series:
 
[Edit: Hinton Bikes was renamed Flit in October 2018 - links have been redirected to the new website: www.flit.bike]

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