Photo Essay: The E-Bikes of Suzhou
I remember the first time I became aware of the bicycle culture of Asia. I was about five years old, and watching a Chinese film where bicycles featured quite prominently. I was astounded that a nation of people could subsist on bicycles as primary transportation. I remember thinking - "Don't these people have cars?", and "Wouldn't all that pedaling get a bit tiresome?"
As a teenager, I visited Taiwan, and then later as an adult, mainland China. I was charmed to discover that, yes, the Chinese are still quite fond of bicycles - and yes, all that pedaling does tend to tire a person, which is likely why they started using gasoline and electric bicycles. Years (and laws) have passed, and the gasoline motors have disappeared. What remains is a culture of electric bicycle transportation that I found to be cheap, simple, and exceedingly practical.
This past summer, I was fortunate enough to spend two months in Suzhou, China - about two hours by car from Shanghai. Suzhou is an old city, in the way that the English language is old; established sometime in the fifth century, Suzhou has been spending the better part of the past two millennia becoming one of China's most beautiful urban environments. This place impressed Marco Polo, and not just because it's the historical center of silk production in Asia - it's just a lovely city, period.
Today, Suzhou is home to about 2 million residents within the city proper - and I don't have the exact numbers on how many of those people have bicycles, but my unscientific guess is "a heck of a lot of them". There are taxis aplenty, and some people do in fact own their own car, but traveling in this way is still rare enough that bikes outnumber cars and busses by a fair margin.
Roads swarm with bicycles traveling alongside their larger, air-conditioned cousins - and in many places, have special lanes with thick concrete medians separating them from the road proper. During rush hour, every stoplight in the city has a phalanx of bicyclists waiting patiently for the light to change - as a river of their compatriots glide quietly through the intersection.
There are bike shops everywhere - selling, fixing, hawking, replacing, upgrading, tweaking - but never standing still for too long. Parking lots have two sections - cars, and bikes (the bike section is always bigger). People ride to work, to the store, to school, to meet friends...
I'm told that the average cost for a regular, human-powered bicycle in Suzhou is quite small; anyone can afford one. An electric bicycle is a bit more expensive - one can buy a dozen or so pedal-powered bicycles for the same cost. A high-quality electric scooter is two or three times more expensive than a bike, though still well in reach of the average middle-class Chinese.
While violent crime doesn't really exist in Suzhou, petty theft is common. The average number of locks I saw on parked bicycles and scooters was three or four. Batteries, when they can't be adequately locked to the bike frame (realize, of course, that three locks is regarded as "adequate" in the mind of a Chinese), are carried by their owner into the store, or work, or what have you. Exceptionally fancy bike lots will have plugs for charging your bicycle as you attend to your business elsewhere.
All of this is in stark contrast to the American "Cater To The Car" culture, where heavy gasoline-engine vehicles are the rule, and there is essentially no exception. When I pitch the idea of an electric bicycle to Americans, the response I get is always "But the motor ruins the point of a bicycle, which is to exercise! You're not supposed to get anywhere with them - that's what cars are for!", and it becomes very difficult to explain the concept of an alternative transportation culture. Ironically, in my 18-24 college student demographic, my peers lust after $20,000-$30,000 (or more!) vehicles that burn $3-$5/gallon gasoline, incur piles of insurance costs, tickets, and frequently expensive maintenance. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, people are accomplishing 99% of their transportation needs on a vehicle that would cost westerners a few hundred dollars.
The combination of a thriving manufacturing and service base, along with cities actually designed to specifically accommodate two-wheeled vehicles, creates a situation in which using a bike as your primary transportation is remarkably practical. At the end of my stay in Suzhou, I found myself smitten with the steady flow of bicycles and scooters. From sun up to sun down, these simple, surprisingly modern machines defined the flow of life in this ancient city in a way that few things do. Personally, I can't wait to return.
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Patrick Benjamin is a 23 year old freelance illustrator and photographer, whose interests in world culture and visual communication have taken him to a variety of interesting places, including the Ringling College of Art + Design, where he is currently studying Illustration. He plans to become more involved with foreign cultures in the future, and travel often to observe, learn, and work. His father, Ed Benjamin, is a respected expert on electric two-wheel vehicles, and an occasional contributor to EV World.
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