UT Study Finds China’s Newfound Mobility Increasingly Reliant on E-Bikes

Chris CherryChina has long had the highest population of any country in the world, but its recent economic boom has presented it with a number of problems, especially transportation and air quality.

UT researchers have been studying the use of e-bikes in China, and their new findings shed light on the demographic and geographic use of the new technology.

“Overall usage has been studied before, but this is one of the first times that people have drilled the data down to geographically defined areas and looked at trends over time,” said Chris Cherry, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. “China is a good case study for investigating e-bikes as a transformative mode of transportation, particularly in urban areas.”

With a population of 1.4 billion, China has four times as many people as the United States and accounts for almost 19 percent of the planet’s total population. The two countries are roughly the same size geographically.

With the growth of the Chinese middle class, experts believe China now has more drivers than the United States, which means the effect of China’s vehicles on air quality is exponentially greater than in America.

“There has been research on the impact of e-bikes on the overall transportation system in China, but no one has ever really tracked the pattern of their use and adaptation over time,” said Cherry. “We set out to look at how those vehicles are being used, who is using them, and how it all relates to issues of transportation and environment that China is facing.”

E-bikes not only produce fewer emissions than automobiles, but also require less space on the China’s overcrowded roadways, particularly in major cities.

China’s populace has purchased more than 150 million vehicles in about the past ten years, a significant investment in a country where the average middle-class family makes around $10,000 a year.

In addition to exploring the rapid adoption of e-bikes, the team found some interesting details when it came to who was buying and using them.

“In one of our multiyear studies, we found that e-bikes trips substitute for one in four car trips, challenging the assumption that e-bike riders simply replace bicyclists,” said Cherry. “The sustainability impacts of the shift are profound. We also found that people who opt to buy automobiles were more likely to be younger and female.

“Still, roughly 40 percent of e-bike users have automobile access, but used the e-bikes in instances where they might have previously taken buses or taxis in congested cities. Basically, e-bikes supplement car ownership and replace a lot of trips that would otherwise be car trips.”

Not surprisingly, Cherry’s team also found that e-bike use was higher in areas with milder weather, while locations near the borders with Mongolia and Russia—where the Siberian winter is dramatically colder than further south—tended to have higher automobile-first usage.

Conversely, the larger, more congested cities tended to have much higher e-bike usage than rural areas—a key finding that differentiated the study.

Related Research from Cherry:

Environmental Justice Aspects of Exposure to PM2. 5 Emissions from Electric Vehicle Use in China

From e-bike to car: A study on factors influencing motorization of e-bike users across China

Dynamics of electric bike ownership and use in Kunming, China

C O N T A C T :

David Goddard (865-974-0683, david.goddard@utk.edu)