BEIJING—Bundled against the cold beneath a highway overpass on a busy Beijing intersection, traffic warden Zhao Delong waved his colored flag in frustration at the new silent killer stalking city streets.
“Those electric bikes just don’t listen! The problem is they go too fast. They can’t stop like bikes. I saw an accident just over there the other day where someone on an e-bike rushed through the intersection and plowed over someone on a regular bike,” Mr. Zhao said as he tried to keep China’s newest road hazard in check.
Powerful battery-powered bicycles are crowding out their push-pedal brethren, delivering a jolt to the Bicycle Kingdom.
By some estimates there are 120 million e-bikes on China’s roads—up from just 50,000 a decade ago, making it the fastest growing form of transportation in China. Cities at first embraced them as a quieter and cleaner alternative to gasoline-powered scooters.
Officials were caught off guard when that environmentally appealing solution turned out to be deadly on the streets. In 2007, there were 2,469 deaths from electric-bicycle accidents nationwide, up from just 34 in 2001, according to government statistics.
That’s roughly 3% of China’s annual 90,000 traffic accident deaths. Still technically bicycles, they’re operating in a legal gray zone. Drivers of electric bikes don’t need to pass stringent driving tests to get licensed, and courts are struggling to sort out lawsuits.
Pedestrians complain that e-bike riders pay little heed to the rules of the road. Drivers of electric bikes are “totally devoid of conscience and respect for the law,” complained Wang Mingyue, a blogger on the popular Beijing News Web site.
China’s e-bike industry started under the planned economy of the Maoist 1960s. Primitive battery and engine technology doomed early efforts. After China liberalized its economy in the 1980s, a handful of entrepreneurs tried to revive e-bikes just as city planners were casting a worried eye on the explosive growth of exhaust-spewing mopeds and scooters. By the 1990s, cities were starting to ban motor scooters, creating an opening for electric bicycles. Electric bikes had government backing: inclusion as one of 10 key scientific-development priority projects in the Ninth Five-Year Plan. They had the personal endorsement of former Premier Li Peng, according to an academic paper on the history of e-bikes in China by Jonathan Weinert, Ma Chaktan and Chris Cherry.
By 1998, regulators realized they had to limit the speed and size of e-bikes, too. The rules were loosely enforced and left a loophole. If it’s got a pedal, it’s a bicycle. The original standards put the maximum speed of an electric bike at 20 kilometers per hour (a little more than 12 mph). But e-bikes’ power soon outpaced that. Some are capable of 25 mph or more.
The market grew slowly at first. That changed after China was hit by severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, in 2003. National e-bike sales jumped from 1.5 million in 2002 to four million in 2003 as commuters sought an alternative to crowded public transport, where germs spread quickly.
Electric-bike fatalities rose, too. In 2003, 87 people were killed in e-bike accidents. A year later, 589 died.
The deaths led to a backlash. Beijing and Fuzhou banned electric bikes in 2002. Beijing lifted its ban in 2006.
More cities decided they’d had enough. The northeast industrial town of Shenyang banned e-bikes in 2009 after their numbers spiked in the wake of a motorcycle ban.
Over the summer, Changsha city traffic police set up checkpoints and handed out 60,000 tickets in five days for e-bikes that violated weight and speed restrictions, or didn’t have proper registration.
In Zhejiang province, Hangzhou banned out-of-town e-bikes; in Wenzhou, police confiscated 5,000 electric bikes in half a month for being too fast and large.
Riders like Yu Dejiang were caught in the legal crossfire. Mr Yu, a 30-year-old air-conditioner repairman in Wenzhou, splurged this summer and spent half a month’s salary on a new electric scooter to replace a secondhand one that got stolen. Two weeks later, police dusted off old regulations on the books, confiscated his bike and fined him 700 yuan—about $100.
“The e-bike is a necessity for my work. The fastest and cheapest traffic vehicle I can afford. It’s the same for most riders here. I can finish my work on the bike. There are no buses in many places and I can’t afford to buy a car. What do you expect me to do?” said Mr. Yu.
A few weeks later, he was back on the streets with another electric bike, looking over his shoulder in case city authorities crack down again.
But there’s another problem. E-bikes may not be so clean after all. Because 95% of China’s e-bikes use lead batteries, they emit more lead into the atmosphere than other forms of transportation, according to some studies. They also rely on electricity that’s mostly made by coal-burning power plants.
Then suddenly, in December, the central government dropped a bombshell: tough new nationwide restrictions. There was heated debate. Sales at Luyuan Group, one of China’s biggest e-bike makers, dropped 50% in December from November.
“Officials are getting the statistics wrong, they’re not looking at them scientifically,” said Ni Jie, Luyuan’s founder. A former economics professor and electrical engineer, Mr. Ni has given his wife the company reins so he can focus more on industry lobbying. He argues electric bicycles are safer than bicycles or motorcycles and will soon start using cleaner, lithium batteries.
After intense public outcry in the media, the government backed down just weeks later. “In essence, a lack of respect for public opinion and for the reasonable and scientific decision-making process was to blame,” for the government’s behavior, said an opinion piece in China Daily, the state-backed English language newspaper.
Now, the industry associations are trying to figure out new guidelines before the central government steps back in. In the meantime, people are back in the shops.
He Chenyan, a 23-year-old telecommunications engineer, offered this advice as he tested out different electric bikes in Hangzhou. “These limits don’t matter,” he said. “The traffic police won’t bother with us. They’ll focus on real motor vehicles like cars and motorcycles.”
A nearby saleswoman offered another solution: After getting a new bike registered with police, a simple adjustment to the motor pushes the maximum speed back up to 20 mph. “Any slower and you might as well ride a bicycle,” she said.
— Sue Feng and Kersten Zhang in Beijing and Ellen Zhu in Shanghai contributed to this article.