Off their electric bikes: China cracks down on 'untrained riders'

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The classic image of Chinese traffic is of armies of bicycles jostling for space or thousands of cars filling the sky with smog, but for millions of commuters the electric bike is the only way to travel.

They are cheap, costing between £200 and £600, use no expensive petrol and are much less polluting than cars, making them the preferred mode of transport for 15 million Chinese.

Delivery men and office workers swear by them, while they are also popular with retired people.

Now a new ban on battery-powered bicycles in the southern boomtown of Guangzhou has left more than 100,000 owners stranded, furious that their cheap and cheerful mode of transport has been outlawed.

Guangzhou is the capital of Guangdong province, home to 10 million people and 870,000 cars, growing by 150,000 a year, which translates into filthy air and traffic gridlock.

Traffic police officers complain that electric bikes and their riders are not trained. The bikes do not need a licence and are exempt from registration fees. Police say this makes it impossible to enforce traffic regulations and led to last week's ban to prevent electric bikes becoming "the main mode of transport".

"These riders have never received any special riding training or tests, so their driving skills are very difficult to guarantee," the police told Xinhua news agency.

More than 100 electric bike makers held a protest rally in Guangzhou, demanding that the government introduce rules and not simply kill off the bikes.

Bicycle owners are also unhappy at not being given compensation. Police said that they had been warned through the media that a ban was in the offing and, anyway, they had never been allowed in the first place.

Local governments are torn about what to do and around one-third of Chinese cities ban the electric bikes. Those caught riding them can be fined £3.50 and have their bikes confiscated.

China's biggest city, Shanghai, on the other hand encourages electric bicycles and has 1.3 million - a total of 500,000 were added last year alone.

And in January, the capital, Beijing, lifted a three-year ban on electric bicycles once the vehicles are registered with the city's traffic administration. City authorities had complained that the used batteries of the bikes were hard to dispose of and may pollute the environment.

The car lobby is powerful in China as many dream of owning a car and the government is keen to make this a reality.