LiveScience highlights a short article on the growth in the use of electric bikes in China, a development that comes with environmental costs and benefits (and clearly a lot of personal mobility benefits for the owners). University of Tennessee-Knoxville professor Christopher Cherry reports on his research:
Chinese cities are expanding and becoming more congested as new personal automobiles fill the scarce roadway capacity. With a long legacy of bicycle use, Chinese commuters are accustomed to personal mobility and short trips. Trips are getting too long for bicycles and public transit services are often incapable of serving populations in cities with disorganized urban development patterns while competing with cars for road space.
Electric bikes have filled the niche, providing high levels of personal mobility at a fraction of the cost of a car or even public transit….
Electric bikes use one car-sized lead acid battery per year. Each battery represents 30-40 percent of its lead content emitted to the environment in the production processes, resulting in about 3 kilograms of lead emitted per battery produced. When scaled up the 40 million electric bikes currently on the roads, this is an astonishing amount of lead emitted into the environment.
This negative environmental impact is countered by other environmental benefits compared to most modes, including vastly reduced energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.
Ultimately, the success or failure of electric bikes as a sustainable mode of transportation should be evaluated in the context of the extent to which they displace automobile. They certainly have fewer negative impacts than personal automobiles, but they currently displace mostly bus and bicycle users and only a small number of car users.