Having spent previous time living and researching in Vietnam, Thailand, and Myanmar, I had come to recognize the importance of the Chinese-engine powered walking-tractor-turned-vehicle (and the many modifications to it) to rural life in these countries. From logistics to transportation to power generation and beyond, I hoped to catalogue and understand modifications to these vehicles in their country of origin before the machines became obsolete. I believed that by understanding various modifications and the forces that drove (or prevented) their widespread adoption that the pace of creative modification could be accelerated in other developing contexts, where the vehicle was still a pivotal rural workhorse.
I studied many vehicles over the course of my grant. Beginning with diesel-powered agricultural vehicles being user-retrofitted for urban life, I also investigated smaller motorcycle-engine powered three-wheelers that had evolved from cargo-transporters into mobile restaurants and people-movers. During my time in China, I also noticed many interesting behaviors surrounding China’s two-wheeled electric vehicles (electric scooters and electric bicycles – or e-bikes) – and particularly around charging them.
Similar to the other vehicles I studied, e-bikes have been exported in staggering numbers to other countries – countries with users who have vastly different preferences and sets of constraints from those in China. While Chinese companies are adept at selling affordable products across the globe, the countries to whom they sell are not always equipped with the resources to design supporting infrastructure for such products (although I’ve seen repurposing and hacking go quite far).
Just as adoption curves vary (but are connected) for automobiles and gas pumps, the same holds true in the e-bike ecosystem. While pumps in the world’s (formal) gas stations are largely identical, there is already a universal means of charging an e-bike: a wall socket and an extension cord. However, that is not always the best solution in all contexts, such as where electricity is spotty or unreliable, where there are a high concentration of users in one place wanting to charge rapidly.
Wander the leafy streets and alleys of Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan Province and a city of 14 million famous for its teahouses and pandas, and one can’t help but notice conspicuous yellow boxes adorning the walls and sidewalks. Keep track of where you spot them, and you’ll see a pattern emerge: they tend to cluster around the walls and sidewalks surrounding convenience stores and bicycle shops. These modest yellow boxes are the street-level infrastructure that keeps Chengdu’s tens of thousands of electric bicycles and scooters in motion – an important task, considering that the number of electric-powered bicycles in China just passed the 200 million mark (over one in ten of China’s population).
Though no stranger to automobiles, with an estimated 2.2 million private passenger vehicles (New York City, by comparison, has around 1.8 million), Chengdu’s flat geography and mild climate makes electric bicycles a popular transportation choice year-round. Intersections are filled with the whirring of electric motors as swarms of them pull away from traffic lights. With so many riders, there are a commensurate number of charge-boxes across the city, with a ten-minute charge costing either one or one and a half yuan (US $0.16 or 0.24). All the charge-boxes I saw in Chengdu were coin-operated, meaning the stores to which they were connected always had to have one yuan coins available to trade with customers hoping to use the machine.
The ownership arrangements for the machines vary: some locations (mostly bicycle repair shops) have purchased their machines outright for 1100 kuai (US $175) from the manufacturers, while certain convenience stores located in high-traffic and high-visibility areas were approached by the manufacturers of the charge-boxes to engage in a profit-sharing arrangement wherein the manufacturer installs a machine for free and keeps half of the machine’s income each month. According to one convenience store owner, “[customers] usually play with their cellphones or call someone,” and further observation and conversations revealed that most customers tended to wait nearby while charging. Customers charging up at bicycle repair shops “seldom” buy other items, though convenience store owners said a few customers bought snacks or drinks while waiting for their charge, particularly during weekends and evening rush hours (though overall still “less than 50% [of riders]”).
A conversation with one user, a roving repairman who lives in Chengdu and specializes in odd household jobs, yielded a glimpse into the challenges of charging on the move. A typical day has him crisscrossing downtown multiple times on his electric scooter, performing tasks ranging from fixing leaking pipes to installing air conditioners. His erratic schedule and route makes it a challenge to plan around his scooter’s battery capacity. To mitigate the risk of running out of battery while driving between jobs, he carries his scooter’s adapter along with him in his toolbox and attempts to find an available outlet to plug into whenever he arrives at a customers’ residence for a job. Through scouting for outlets he saves money and time by avoiding having to stop to charge his scooter. “As you see, I don’t always get it right,” he admits with a grin as we talk on the steps of a bicycle repair shop, his scooter humming quietly as electricity flows into its battery from the charge-box perched on the shop’s steps. “My business is [unpredictable], and I don’t know where and how far I’ll go each day – it all depends on who calls me and when. I like [these charging machines] though… they are convenient, and I can find one nearby when I need one.”
One concerning charge-box practice (though which also hinted at a higher potential) was the affixing of nationalist propaganda to them. I noticed several charge-boxes that sported an identical decal, which read, “The Diaoyu Islands belong to China, boycott Japanese goods, starting with me.” Though the appropriateness of placing politically motivated (or otherwise incendiary) messages upon a piece of commonly used urban infrastructure is open to debate, this reveals a potential function of a charging station as a point of disseminating information – modern China’s sidewalk version of the water cooler. Using NFC capabilities in one’s phone to pay for the services, one could also capitalize upon that interaction to connect one to their surroundings at a moment when one has some time on their hands whilst waiting for their vehicle to charge. Besides freeing both customer and shopkeeper from the onerous task of needing a coin handy in order to pay for the charger, imagine if swiping one’s phone over the machine could notify you that your friend was in the adjacent super market, or that that supermarket was having a sale on your favorite flavor of ice cream. Publicly owned chargers could display automatically updating and timely municipal information.
While charge-boxes are ubiquitous in Chengdu, this is not the case for all cities (though with few exceptions, electric bicycles are legion in urban China). As one resident of Chengdu observed of their city, the charge-boxes tended to cluster on “smaller, narrower streets [around Chengdu]”. In Shenzhen, the first of China’s Special Economic Zones and a major global manufacturing hub, such streets tend to be generally scarcer than in Chengdu. Although Shenzhen lacks the same degree of formal charging stations, it compensates in more “work-unit” centered solutions; charging solutions there often tend to be both developed by and centered around the employees of a given building, which builds a social aspect in to charging one’s electric bike or scooter. Of the offices I spoke with, all stated their willingness to have people who were not their employees charge their electric bicycles there. Says one office manager, “Very little electricity is used, so it’s a small thing for us.”
That isn’t to say that yellow “charge-boxes” were completely absent from Shenzhen. A few can be spotted in similar places to Chengdu’s, such as mounted on convenience stores. I did notice one charge-box being employed in a particularly novel fashion: a restaurant based in a dense residential neighborhood had a trio of electric bikes plugged in to a charge-box next to the entry to his restaurant.
After some confused questioning on my part, the owner revealed he purchased a charge-box solely for charging his restaurant’s stable of electric bicycles. “These [e-bikes] are for delivering food to people [who live in the neighborhood],” he explained, gesturing to the surrounding high-rise residential towers with their rows of illuminated windows reaching up into the night sky. Why buy a charge-box instead of adopting the “social” system employed by the other offices around Shenzhen? “This [charge-box] charges [the e-bikes] much more quickly than if I just plugged them in to the wall, and during meal times a driver might need to make a longer trip, or deliver many orders on a single trip, so I always keep [the e-bikes] fully charged.”
The following day, I found myself in a neighborhood of Shenzhen filled with wholesale markets – along with the accompanying infrastructure to package and ship goods bought across China and the world. In an alley behind a mall specializing in cellphone components, I stumbled upon this scene:
A bird’s nest of wires, bikes, batteries, and chargers, threaded across the front of a delivery and logistics shop. Walking in, I explained my interest in understanding how they used their e-bikes. These “extreme users” seemed at the upper reaches of the spectrum when it came to using and managing e-bikes, with all of the rich experience to boot. As we spoke, the shop’s dispatcher explained, “The chargers and batteries are a common type [across all of our e-bikes] – if a bike is out of electricity, [the rider] just takes a spare battery.” Everyone has their name written on their bike’s charger, as the company’s couriers use their e-bikes both for business and personal transportation. All riders have also bought a spare battery (for which there is a lively secondary market in many Chinese cities – fueled primarily by theft), and keep it charging at the shop in case they need to swap out quickly between deliveries.
The above cases in Shenzhen have illustrated in various ways an unmet need: the space for an enterprise-scale charging solution. The numerous offices relying upon running an extension cord out to charge their employees’ e-bikes create a risk of tripping, and also must frequently repair or replace the extension cord due to lacking the robustness necessary for prolonged exposure to the elements (and shoes of passing pedestrians). Were there a means of installing a charger to which access could be controlled and managed through use of cellphones’ NFC capabilities, it could prove convenient for employees commuting to the area were they able to access the charger on a subscription basis (unlimited charges for a set monthly price at any of the manufacturer’s charge-boxes in the city).
By purchasing a charge-box for the explicit purpose of rapidly charging his trio of e-bikes, the restaurant owner was signaling his prioritization of quick recharging. Although a not insignificant cost for his restaurant, he values the certainty that at least two of his e-bikes will be rapidly charging and ready to make long delivery runs with little notice.
Finally, consider what type of charging solution would be needed to eliminate the need for each of the courier shop’s riders to purchase a spare battery for their e-bike. Consider how a rapid-charging solution for a business relying upon more than half a dozen e-bikes would function. Although the dispatcher considered the present system “simple”, the strip of tape along the floor that reads “Please park [e-bikes] inside of the yellow line!” implies that it’s only with strict management in this space-constrained office that parking and charging patterns do not interfere with the numerous package runners and delivery men rushing in and out of the building.
The prospect of limiting emissions, as well as reducing the need for space-consuming parking lots and gas stations, is a tempting externality of the e-bike revolution in the developed world. Lowering barriers to charging will accelerate the demand curve, meaning more people will feel confident purchasing an e-bike, driving more sales of both e-bikes and chargers. The implications for the developing world are even more significant, however. A recent New York Times article mentioned the potential benefits of wireless solar power to resource-constrained and off-grid contexts:
Overlooked is another potential boon that greater electricity access could bring: more ubiquitous, affordable, and reliable infrastructure to charge e-bikes, in turn creating environmentally-friendly competition to the aspiration to own petrol-consuming motorcycles and cars. The potential to curtail developing contexts’ dependency upon fuel for mobility would be within the realm of possibility – but not without appropriate charging infrastructure designed for the variety of circumstances and conditions in which they’d be used.
Hence, while what constitutes the “ideal” charger will vary by place, it makes sense to start analyzing the behaviors and norms surrounding e-bike charging in the context furthest along the e-bike adoption curve today: urban China.