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Transport in China: Cars vs Bicycles and E-Bikes Report

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Updated: Sep 26th, 2020

This paper focuses on the economic and societal impacts of the urban transportation and namely, on the way they can influence the city economy addressing the needs of the low-income areas and populations. In particular, this paper compares and contrasts between the economic and societal advantages and disadvantages of cars and bicycles (or e-bikes) in China, one of the world’s largest developing countries.

The situation is that bicycles used to be extremely popular in China at the beginning of the 2000s; however, this tendency has changed as the population became wealthier and able to afford cars. The report evaluates the capacities of the two methods of transportation in China and proposes options that could help the Chinese residents shift back from using primarily cars to the reliance on more sustainable means of transportation such as bicycles and e-bikes.


As reported by The World Bank Group, the urban transportation strategies that were developed and applied at the beginning of the 2000s and the end of the 1990s was mainly orientated at the economic and financial preparedness of the cities but overlooked their livability, competitiveness, and the ways they are governed and managed (Carruthers, Dick, & Saurkar, 2005).

Economic Factors

Throughout the 1980s and till the beginning of the 2000s, a very high percentage of the Chinese population relied on bicycles as the key method of urban transportation (Cherry, 2007). This tendency persisted due to such economic factors as low levels of income and the absence of need for the population to travel long distances to get to workplaces. However, over the past decade, the pace of the urbanization has increased in China, and this phenomenon served as the key factor contributing to the motorization of the urban transportation (Yang, 2010).

Another powerful determinant of the urban motorization in the largest cities of China was the growth in the income level of the population. In particular, He, Huo, and Zhang (2003) report a massive growth in the GDP at the onset of the 2000s which has resulted in the rapidly increasing motor vehicle ownership among the domestic population which has been showing a steady increase of about 17% annually since 2001 (He, Huo, & Zhang, 2003; Ji, Cherry, Bechle, Wu, & Marshall, 2012).

Social Factors

China is known for the rapid increase in the population due to which Beijing is now one of the largest and densely populated cities in the world with the urban population of over 10 million people (Pucher, Peng, Mittal, Zhu, & Korattyswaroopam, 2007).

The rapid growth of the population combined with the economic development has resulted in the growth of the cities because more residents were willing to move there searching for employment (Yang, 2010). As a result, the average length of trips the residents of the Chinese cities had to make to get to work became much longer and facilitated the need for cars that started to replace bicycles. Since the beginning of the 1990s, the number of motor vehicles owned by the Chinese citizens grew ten times larger (Pucher et al., 2007).



The rates of automobile ownership in China have not seen any growth prior to the 1980s regardless of the active population and city growth; however, the 1990s has shown a fast increase in the number of cars in the cities (Yang, 2010). It remains unclear what social factors that stimulate the car ownership in China. The households owning cars are located in all areas of the cities (those closer to and further from the center) (Yang, 2010). The fact that many car owners live rather close to their workplaces implies that cars in China are purchased not only as a practical tool but as a matter of pride and social status.

Bicycles and E-Bikes

As soon as bicycles proved inefficient in the expanding cities of China, the population has adopted e-bikes that currently outnumber conventional cars 2 to 1 (Ji et al., 2012). One Hundred million e-bikes were purchased in China over the last ten years, which is more than in all other states combined (Ji et al., 2012).


Economic Factors

The new programs, including the one called Cities on the Move presented by The World Bank Group, targeted the developing cities focusing on their sustainability and the levels of poverty that could be addressed by means of the provision of better transportation. This approach assumed that one of the major issues of the depowered populations was their deprivation of opportunities due to the inability to reach the areas of their cities where they could pursue better education and careers. All in all, the popularity of urban transportation methods is influenced by multiple social and economic factors (Carruthers, et al., 2005).

Social Factors

The modern Chinese population is in need for a sustainable and safe mode of transportation. The increase in car ownership has resulted in the growing rates of road accident and deaths related to car crashes (Yulin, Liguang, Hongyang, & Runlong, n. d.). In terms of health impacts, the effect of e-bikes is unclear as they are powered by electricity and their use decreases the tailpipe emissions, but increases the emissions produced by the power plants (Ji et al., 2012).



Cars are more effective in terms of speed, are able to carry heavy loads and more people; also, they indicate wealth and improve social position of the owners. The disadvantages are the tailpipe emissions, traffic jams, road accidents, high price and maintenance cost.

Bicycles and E-Bikes

Bicycles and e-bikes are cheaper to purchase and maintain than cars; also, they are treated as environmentally safer options, but for e-bikes, this statement is not supported by evidence (due to the higher electricity consumption). The use of e-bikes reduced the danger of road accidents and minimizes traffic problems. However, they are not as prestigious as the conventional cars.


Due to the high density of the Chinese population, bicycles and e-bikes are more appropriate as they prevent traffic jams and improve urban mobility. At the same time, regardless of all the advantages, bicycles are not suitable for the long-distance trips, so the residents favor cars. E-bikes solve the problem of distance but continue to inflict environmental concerns because of the power plant emissions. They are more suitable for the densely populated areas of the Chinese megacities as a method of avoiding traffic jams and road accidents.


The active adoption of e-bikes in China that occurred during the beginning of the 2000s happened due to multiple reasons – better mobility, convenience. Lower maintenance cost, and the perceived environmental friendliness. This method is more appropriate for the Chinese urban residents because of the following reasons: easier connection and reach of the city areas, no need to wait in traffic lines, better cost-effectiveness, and safer transportation.

The major disadvantage of the e-bikes is the pollution. However, compared to those produced by the conventional cars, the power plant emissions may be minimized if China embraces solar and wind energy generation and the use of solar power plants. To date, China is developing a set of policies and subsidies that would help the country embrace renewable energy to address multiple energy issues including the increase power plant emissions due to the use of e-bikes (NREL, 2004).


Carruthers, R., Dick, M., & Saurkar, A. (2005). Affordability of Public Transport in Developing Countries. The World Bank Report, 1-23. Web.

Cherry, C. (2007). Electric Bike Use in China and Their Impacts on the Environment, Safety, Mobility and Accessibility. UC Berkley Center for Future Urban Transport, Working Paper UCB-ITS-VWP-2007-3, 1-23. Web.

He, K., Huo, H., & Zhang, Q. (2003). . Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, 1-12. Web.

Ji, S., Cherry, C., Bechle, M., Wu, Y., & Marshall, J. (2012). Electric Vehicles in China: Emissions and Health Impacts. Environmental Science & Technology, 46, 2018−2024. Web.

NREL. (2004). . Web.

Pucher, J., Peng, Z., Mittal, N., Zhu, Y., & Korattyswaroopam, N. (2007). . Transport Reviews, 27, 1-61. Web.

Yang, J. (2010). Spatial and Social Characteristics of Urban Transportation in Beijing. Journal of the Transportation Research Board, 2193, 59-67. Web.

Yulin, J., Liguang, F., Hongyang, W., & Runlong, X. (n. d.). . Volvo Research and Educational Foundations, Task No. 048010, 1-16. Web.

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