December 13, 2013

The Electric Scooters of Shenzhen

Every once in a while you stumble upon something, and you are surprised at the change. I travel so much, I know what to look for when it comes to change, and I know how slowly change usually happens. If the change is environmental in nature, in this case the application of a technology to reduce air pollution, and you see a complete turnaround in 4 or 5 years, you get a bolt of Hope in a hurry, especially if it happened in the heart of the world's new global warming bette noir, The Peoples Republic of China, and to be exact, it manufacturing powerhouses in the areas around Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Guangzhou, the old Canton. What am I talking about.. it's gunna seem small, it is small, but I hope I can find statistics to explain to you just how large it really is. I am talking about 2 stroke scooters, or the apparent lack of them, in Shenzhen. I used to have to imagine Asia without the whine of these ubiquitous little motors, now I can experience it. Every scooter in Shenzhen that I saw during a long days night of pacing the streets was electric. It was a complete change out of inventory in a way that could only occur under the type of authority extant in the wold's largest Capitalist Dictatorship, the PRC, which just passed These Here United States of America for Overall Atmospheric Carbon Emissions a few years back. Let's not talk per capita just yet, that's embarrassing for the west. But in this blog, I wouldn't be pointing such a hairy finger of blame, in part an accident of demographics, if it wasn't somehow involved in displaying something good.

So what was I doing in Shenzhen, China's fourth largest berg, or more accurately Shekou, it's nicest sub city, for one night? Partying with a bunch of drunken sailors. Seriously. I was temporarily one of them, and we were 23 days land deprived and in need of a good look around and a night to remember. While the bosun and the watch officers unloaded and loaded our cargo of containers with the Chinese Longshoremen as part of the traffic between Long Beach, Oakland, and a quintet of Chinese ports as part of a regular service, those of us left got to sally onto shore for a bit of recreation.. The afternoon started with the normal sight seeing, let's not talk about how the night ended to the uninitiated, but it was fun to see 20 drunken Brothers of the Sea from 4 different nations acting like teenagers on the town from one big happy family, and it was nice to be greeted by what we were greeted by in the form of these electric scooters. When you spend a lot of time at sea, there can be a symphony of mixed feelings involved in coming to shore. You remember how sad things can be. You have been staring at more stars than you can imagine, and the only humanity you were interacting with was humane, thoughtful, and only in a hurry when it needed to be, and there was no rancor but for the regular pulse of the engine, which becomes like a mothers heartbeat with time. So as I signed out of the gate with my new buddies, I braced myself for the smoggy insanity I know Mainland China to usually be. What greeted me was something distinct.. sure, people were still in a bit of a hurry, and the buses made a bit of noise, but something was missing, distinctly missing, and it is the signature sound of Asia beyond the twang of of the Huqin. The sound I am talking about is the whine of the two stroke engine, that is the heart of the Motor Scooter, ranging from 50 to 300 cc in strength. It is the modern Asian ride,the bike of the Post War Boom, the symbol of floating through a sea of humanity with modernity. There are hundreds of millions of motorized two and three wheeled conveyances inAsia, and they make an awful sink and an awful din, but it reminds you where you are in a way that can also be comforting.
For those who don't know much about engines.. ahem.. let me educate you with my in fact accredited knowledge from some time I did in the garages of Community College. A four stroke engine is what almost every car has. the piston goes up and down, driving a crank shaft, which turns your wheels, usually though a transmission to change the gear ratios so you can be more energy efficient, stay within the peak performance areas of the vehicle. The Strokes are Intake, Compression, Power, and Exhaust, not these guys:
The problem with a four stroke engine, in addition to the facts that it is only about 30% efficient and works most easily on fossil fuels and is ruining our climate, is that it is more expensive than something called a two stroke engine to make, maintain, and it's heavier too. Following me? a two stroke takes those four strokes of and combines them into two. When you do anything in half the time, it usually gets sloppy. It's only about 15% to 20% efficient, but in a moped, it is lighter, easier to handle, cheaper to fix, so who cares if it is loud like a chainsaw (also almost always a two stroke) and uses say 40% more gas, only about half of which is actually burns, emitting the rest as a greater variety of  burned and half burned pollutants than even your four stroke. All those loud damn mopeds and scooters that have ruled the road from Paris to Saigon and Beyond for some 40 years now, perhaps longer, are nasty polluting two strokes. Cute as a Vespa is, and yes it's overall better than a car, but it's not as good as the cheap motorcycle right next to it, which is the smallest 4 stroke you tend to see in transportation, starting at about 125 cc in the Tiny Chinese Bike department, when it comes to not being polluting. So a 2 stroke scooter is better than a hummer, yes, but that hummer burns relatively cleaner, and you can't fit as many of them in a small area as you can the 70 puffing and burping and screaming 2 stroke scooters you are apt to see waiting at an intersection from Jakarta to Hokkaido and west to Pakistan. In any nation whose development model has been taken seriously, if people start making 10 to 15 bucks a day, then can afford one, and that is more and more of the world's factory, modern Asia, and most prolifically, the Pearl River Delta where I was hanging with the drunken sailors. When there was talk of enviromagheddon, a car that would be so cheap everyone in India would buy it, the Tata Nano, I thought to myself, well, sure it will spike traffic like crazy, it takes up 4 times the space, but at least it will be a 4 stroke.. if you are not in that traffic jam, just breathing the air on the same planet, it's kind of a wash. Why? because it is a 4 stroke, and actually gets about the same mileage as a lot of old scooters it would be replacing, and with less of a range of emissions, so it's almost an upgrade. Plus, it gets people out of the rain.. that's progress! Now if it replaces one of these little motorcycles I am talking about, which are 4 stroke, it isn't a wash, the car will be worse since these things can as cleanly give you as much as 80MPG, but who am I to say who gets to get out of the rain.
Anyhow, back to China, and Shenzhen in particular. Shenzhen is 10 million people now, but was a village over the Hong Kong Border 40 years ago. It's growth has been exponential with the creation of a special economic zone right at that port of Chiwan, about 5 miles away, where our ship was sitting, the exact spot that Deng Xiaopeng opened China to the world in the gathering dawn after the dark days of the Cultural Revolution by making this special economic zone, with Chiwan as it's first port a few miles, away from Hong Kong. It is the epitome of what I am talking about in scale, if not in duration of industrialized time, as places like Taiwan and Japan and Korea had a head start due to not having been plunged into the extremes of isolation and social and economic upheaval that occurred during the rule of Mao Tse Tung. Other huge populations like India and Indonesia are now plunging right into that "moped zone" of economic development, along with countries like Thailand and the Philippines, long famous for their Tuk Tuk's, but now entering areas of per capita GDP where people sick of walking and buses (and bemos and mini busses!) can grab themselves a little two banger to get around.
If transportation creates about 15% of the world's carbon emissions as of my writing in the year of our lord 2013 (Buddhist Year 2556), I would have to guess that the hundreds of millions of scooters we are talking about create some 2-3% of the world carbon emissions. Unfortunately, I can't seem to find breakdowns that way, but we are talking about big numbers. That is the same stake aviation has, which is spending billions of dollars to eke out marginal savings.. this is huge low hanging fruit. This report attempted to bring order to this madness in 2007, and estimated that 85% of the world's two and three wheeled vehicles are in Asia.
A half step is to retrofit 2 strokes to 4 strokes, as was famously done in a big initiative in the Philippines,
but the pie in the sky, the ideal state, is electric driven by renewable energy.
So as I begin to research here, I find a writers dilemma, a few actually. First is that I don't speak Chinese..
Wo Bu Hui Jiang Hua Yu!... Suck it up writer, you say, it's your dilemma, hire a Chinese research assistant for 20 cents.. you already have me intrigued! Well, moving on from my laziness, I find my second dilemma.. the coverage that is in English of this major phenomenon focuses on a dust up between Shenzhen and their now massive (for me, good news) electric bike community:
Imagine that... 200 million electric bikes..

 Wikipedia, towards the bottom here, says that some 100 million electric bikes were made between 2008 and 2010, the scooters close cousin. Here is this great leap forward depicted in English only in light of the ban, oh, and in, light of the guy sprawled all over the pavement because these things are quiet as can be, go really fast, and don't require a licence like I am going to start to sound like the Chinese Government saying smog is good for your sense of humor, when I am arguing against smog!
Turns out I was wrong about this being government ordered, my third dilemma, kind of. It's the good old free market. The change was so complete, so impressive, I could have sworn and assumed when I started writing that this was a government program, when in fact, it was the exact opposite, good old Chinese free market in action perhaps (forgetting the devaluation of the Yuan that makes all that manufacturing possible in the first place!). As I read however the plot thickens, as the Motorcycle was banned in about 90 Chinese cities, according the Wikipedia's electric bike entry, but not scooters. So we have this combo of Government and free market, but the Chinese have definitively stated through purchasing that they like these things.
So the Wall Street Journal Blog brought up all the conventional wisdom problems of this situation, so I might as well just speak to their criticisms now. What I have learned is that these big changes that affect climate change tend to be two steps forward, one step back... at first. Everything being said here has been said about the electric car and hybrids in the US, and we keep moving forward. It's the same with wind turbines.. they do kill birds and bats.
However, you can add a noise to a silent vehicle ( I think Tesla has.. it sounds so Buck Rodgers, or maybe it is just the brake discs rotating in the brakes, which you can't hear on other vehicles over the engine), maybe we could make these for people:
 and you can regulate speed.. ask Smokey and the Bandit.. maybe China needs to find it's inner Burt Reynolds. I think the first traffic cops were born within days of the first cars 110 odd years ago (imagine that, 110 years of auto dominance!).
The Ni Cad battery argument was made often, strongly, and perhaps correctly about the Prius (the allegation being that they were made under such horrible industrial conditions in some Siberian mine and factory that they negated the gas savings of the car in meta analysis), and it forced Chevy and Tesla and Nissan to go for Lithium Ion, much cleaner to make, and now Prius is Lithium too... that was maybe a 5 year curve.... and now we have a solid improvement with the lithium for planetary and local health. And sure Chinese power plants are awful, trust me. I just heard from a Chinese friend over a big bowl of squid soup that the government has openly said they are moving as many polluting industries as possible to their east coast to take advantage of he prevailing westerlies.. I just cruised the Chinese coast, and the pollution was awful, the sky a yellowish grey.. made me not want to eat the seaweed in the soup (the only thing I did want to eat on some level) since they farm it on these big bays right underneath said coal plants, but there are signs of hope that that might someday change:
This is where we find ourselves in the original dilemma again of the strength of centralized authority in China, but in this case, it will be a good thing. Anyone who knows anything about China knows that when this government makes a decision, it starts to happen, no matter how invasive.. this one goes in the good category. China is taking this very seriously.

 They have to. Their people are dying from these emissions, but now at least, less from point source pollution that settles in every street and chokes you as you walk to the store to get some sea urchin chips or water your orchids.. Shenzhen is materially better.. I don't want to argue the same old joke of a line in environmental science that "the Solution to Pollution is Dilution" but shooting it up into the atmosphere at this point,under more efficient generations schemes from coal perhaps, but increasingly natural gas, bio, wind and solar, do make these electric bikes a step forward I am pretty sure, it not now, soon in the future, and the conversion of technology and mindset have occurred. The rest becomes just hard work. Plus, half of them must be made in Shenzhen! it's like local food..carbon costs of delivery are almost nil!
So on my wild night partying with a bunch of drunken sailors on the streets of there was none of the rancor you usually associate with China, just calm.. it was calm, and for a bunch of sailors, we were happy to be back on land, because maybe, just maybe, the stress of modern life might be abating in one little corner, like a child falling off to sleep after a crying fit, making people more likely to want to walk instead of drive, and since that little corner is literally the world's factory, it will spread from there. They are waiting for it in South East Asia, perhaps even India, trust me!
The Scooter is Dead?! Long Live the Scooter! you guys are bad ass!
oh and yes, a dog riding a scooter:
thank you you tube, you make all my dreams come true.. like Chinese Manufacturing... sigh... why leave home!?


  1. Great and impressive post! i might wish to thanks for sharing such helpful information. I favor it most. i used to be looking such information since lasting. Today’s I found it finally. I even have gathered additional information from your web site. i believe this information is additional useful for everyone . I hope that, you may share more valuable info for us.Electric Scooter

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. No problem Ashley,
      glad I could be helpful, and I will admit it seemed like a huge under-covered development, in English at least (again, my Chinese is a bit rusty...)...sorry I took so long to respond, been, um.. researching a story in remote lands!...
      keep enjoying!

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  4. I agree with you that China must do more to decrease air pollution. I can't imagine how they can breath the polluted fogs as I seen on TV.

    1. Brian,
      if you read my latest post on documentaries, the one I was most excited about was Under the Dome, by a reporter from Central China.. 300 million people watched it before the government banned it, but it revealed that the majority of Chinese people believe in weather reports that it is just fog. I was in Hong Kong once years before I wrote this, hanging out with a reporter and I mad a quip about the pollution, which was intenense, and she said it was not bad given that it was the New Years Holiday. She was speaking frome xperiene having lived there about two years. Shenzen actually cleans out compared to Beijing, doesn't get inversions, it's like Miami compared to Shanghai being New York and Beijing Chicago, and while it produces a lot of pollution it mostly follows westerlies out into the pacific.

  5. I am really glad that I have found this post and I thank you for letting us know about this information….This is a big help for sure!!Thanks!

  6. Balance bike are a great way to introduce a young toddler to the concept of cycling, but without the fear of falling off!

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