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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Mopeds in Beijing

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Spacing correspondent Megan Hall has just returned from Beijing. Over the next few weeks, she will continue to share her observations of China’s capital in the aftermath of the 2008 Olympics.

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Returning to Toronto has made me appreciate this city more than ever — the clean air and small city blocks as well as the diverse neighbourhoods with so many types of food available on every street. There is one thing I miss about Beijing, however — my moped.

During the first week of my trip my boyfriend and I went out to buy a couple of bikes to get around with, but due to a momentary lapse in judgment we ended up spending $200 instead of the original $20 that we could have bought a bike for. It ended up being the best purchase of our entire three months in China. The instructions for the moped were very simple- unplug the cord that leads to the battery, take the battery indoors and plug it into the wall. It took about an hour to charge half an hour of battery and, in all, it could last up to four hours, give or take how fast we were traveling and on what kind of roads we were riding on. The bike also supported both of us, without any adverse affects to the speed at which we could travel. The only downside seemed to be that the lead-acid battery weighed about 20 pounds and that lugging it up the five flights of stairs to our apartment was a bit of a hassle. Other than that, it was the absolute best way to get around Beijing. We could cruise quickly through the hutong alleyways, and ride in the bike lanes down major streets. Last week, I read that there are more than 70,000 mopeds in Beijing right now, but it seems as if when you’re on the street they’re almost as numerous as regular bikes.

Now that I’m back in Toronto, I really do miss having the moped around. It wouldn’t do so well on even the slightest inclines of Toronto’s streets, but something with a little more power would definitely do the trick. The problem is affordability. For the $200 that we spent in Beijing, we didn’t care that our bike squeaked a bit after the first few weeks or that occasionally the back basket would fall off. The stick-on characters indicating the company name eventually peeled off the mirrors and the brakes started to get a little worse for wear by the time we left. The little battery always maintained its battery life, however, and the motor never faltered. Despite looking a bit beat-up by the time we left, we sold the bike the day before we left and recovered more than half the cost of what we bought it for. With a quick tune-up it would have been top notch again. Many mopeds in Beijing looked upwards of five years old and ours was only three months old and still running strong.

In Toronto, mopeds are much more expensive and can set you back for the same cost of a used car. However, electricity (for the moment) is not nearly as expensive as the price of gas, and although we still partially rely on coal power to provide us our energy, some argue that it is not nearly as harmful as pumping gas fumes into the air in our individual cars.

If anyone can find a way to import these cheap electric bikes to North America, I’d jump on board in a second. They’re fantastic alternatives to cars (at least for three seasons), and even give regular bikes a run for their money.



  1. I myself bought a folding bicycle in Beijing and toured the city with it. It’s a great way to experience the city and mix with the locals–much better than some tour bus. The pollution problem is much exaggerated and I rode without any ill effects.
    I recommend seeing the city this way. Best thing is, the folding bike goes into a large suitcase and you can bring it back home to use, and for future trips!

  2. Of course they are cheap in China. They would be cheaper here if we considered the death of coal miners as statistics. And scrubbers? Those are for pots and pans.

  3. We’ve got radwaste issues here that we haven’t dealt with either, and our gluttony for easy pushpedal (not pushpedal to bicycle) mobility means at least one more nuke plant eh? There’s also a set of lifecycle costs with the heavy metals in batteries that we don’t deal with very well either.
    While it’s true that these mopeds are likely better than cars, it’s not the scale of the fix that’s needed to get us travelling sustainably.

  4. Great post – Toronto does need more ways to get around. Inexpensive mopeds might be a good solution for the inner suburbs where the distance to the to the core is a little too much for many to bike.

  5. Question: How much pollution would be caused by importing these cheap bikes?