The article raises several important points for me.
One is that the electric bicycle market in China is BIG! Amazingly big. With an estimated 1 million of them in Shanghai alone. Three times more electric bicycles are sold in China than automobiles.
Another important point is that there is a struggle going on over what to do about these machines. A number of local authorities have banned or tried to ban them. Manufacturers and retailers have been fighting back. It is too soon to say how it will turn out.
This struggle is reminiscent of many others around the world over many different kinds of vehicle. Transport authorities seem to have a hard time knowing what to do with "in between" modes of transport. By that I mean modes that are not in the standard textbook lists of the main modes.
There seems to be a pervasive urge to force traffic to look like the traffic engineering textbooks say it should look like. There are no doubt lots of reasonable sounding practical reasons for trying to do so ... but the real world keeps refusing to become so neat and tidy.
In Asia, the mode of transport that seems to attract most ire from tidy minds is the three-wheel pedicab (in its various incarnations as bicycle rickshaw, becak, trishaw, tricycle, ciclo, etc). Off the top of my head a short list of places that have banned or restricted these includes: Singapore (ages ago, but now allowed as a tourist thing), Kuala Lumpur (also ages ago), Bangkok, Jakarta (famously throwing many into the ocean), Dhaka (banned them from several key streets recently) and Delhi (where they are banned from grand, colonial New Delhi).
Of course, bicycles are mainstream in some countries (I am very envious), but in a lot of places they fall in the cracks between transport planners' neat categories. Regrettably Singapore is one of the mamy places aound this region where the authorities seem to wish bicycles would fade away (see the Cycling in Singapore blog).
Our friends at TRIPP in Delhi have done a lot of research into the uniquely mixed traffic of India's cities and how this requires new approaches to road safety. You need to be realistic when your traffic includes handcarts, animal drawn vehicles, three-wheelers both motorised and non-motorised and straying cattle as well as pedestrians and bicycles doing some unpredictable things.
Maybe the whole world never was really converging on a simple mix of vehicles (and obeying the text books finally). And anyway, things are now getting more complicated even in rich countries. Electric bicycles are just part of this.
The advent of the Segway has also provoked the question for authorities everywhere of where should they be used? No-one knows quite where to put them.
The indomitable Todd Litman and Robyn Blair have written a thoughtful article (presented at the TRB Annual Meeting January 2004) about the policy dilemmas posed by personal mobility devices on non-motorised transport facilities (pdf). They methodically provide some definitions:
A Personal Mobility Device (PMD) is any relatively small, wheeled device that provides personal mobility and can operate on nonmotorized facilities. PMDs include skates, skateboards, wheelchairs, powered scooters, and Segway-type scooters. For the purposes of this paper, PMDs also include bicycles ...
Their opening paragraph sums up some of the difficulty:
In theory, managing transportation facilities is simple. Wheeled vehicles should use roadway and pedestrian should use nonmotorized facilities, including walkways, sidewalks and paths. But in practices these categories don’t always work. An increasing variety of wheeled Personal Mobility Devices (PMDs) such as wheelchairs, skates and skateboards may use both roads and non-motorized facilities. Recently, several new types of Electric Personal Assistive Mobility Devices (EPAMD) have entered the market, such as those illustrated in Figure 1. These are technically innovative, energy efficient and attractive to many people. Proponents have lobbied to allow their use on sidewalks and other nonmotorized facilities. This has generatedconsiderable debate.
This also reminds me of an article from Australia that talked about "Feral travel"(in Australia, "feral" animals are the non-native ones that have run wild and multiplied.. but in slang the word also gets applied to a lifestyle). They were talking about skateboards, in-line skates, foot scooters, and such like. Sorry nothing on-line but the reference is:
Stratford, E. Harwood, A. (2001) Feral Travel and the Transport Field: Some Observations on the Politics of Regulating Skating in Tasmania, Urban Policy and Research, 19 (1): 61-76
Should transport planners be more open to all these diverse travel modes, with their variety of characteristics? How would standard practice need to change to better on this? I don't know but these things are not going away.