Tianjin: Chinese commuters in their millions are turning to electric bicycles -- hailed as the environmentally-friendly future of personal transport in the country`s teeming cities.
Up to 120 million e-bikes are estimated to be on the roads in China, making them already the top alternative to cars and public transport, according to recent figures published by local media.
"This is the future -- it`s practical, it`s clean and it`s economical," said manufacturer Shi Zhongdong, whose company also exports electric bikes to Asia and Europe.
The bikes have been hailed as an ecologically-sound alternative in a country which is the world`s top emitter of greenhouse gases, with their rechargeable batteries leaving a smaller carbon footprint than cars.
But some have expressed concerns about the pollution created by cheaper lead batteries, calling for better recycling and a quick shift to cleaner, though more expensive, lithium-ion battery technology.
More than 1,000 companies are already in the e-bike business in China, with many of them clustered in the eastern coastal provinces such as Jiangsu and Zhejiang, which both border Shanghai.
Another 1,000 firms are producing e-bikes on an ad hoc basis, Shi told AFP during a visit to his Hanma Electric Bicycles factory in the port city of Tianjin, about 120 kilometres (75 miles) north of Beijing.
"The business has exploded since 2006," Shi says, while admitting that the company took a hit last year due to the financial crisis.
Some e-bikes can reach speeds of more than 35 kilometres an hour (21 miles per hour), and a few manufacturers boast their models can last up to 50 kilometres on a single battery charge.
Battery chargers are simply plugged into an electricity socket at home. Most e-bikes also have pedals, except for the bigger, scooter-like models.
Shi was an electrical engineer who worked for a state-owned firm for most of his career, but as he turned 55 and retirement was beckoning he founded Hanma in 1999, investing about 500,000 yuan (75,000 dollars) of his own money.