Electric bikes gaining in popularity in Japan

The number of electrically power-assisted bicycles sold in Japan has been on the rise in recent years, reflecting strong demand not only from a growing number of elderly people but also working parents with small children.

Shipments of electric bicycles more than doubled to 667,244 units in 2018 from 280,271 in 2008, while sales of scooters with an engine of 50 cc or less plunged to 143,129 units in 2018 from 470,922 in 2005, according to data released by the industry ministry and the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association.

Yamaha Motor Co introduced the world’s first electrically-powered bicycle models in 1993, as an attempt to produce more eco-friendly mobility products amid growing concerns about the environment during the 1980s, said Yasuhiro Kashima, sales manager at subsidiary Yamaha Motorcycle Sales Japan Co.

Electric bicycles first became popular among elderly people with declining physical strength, Kashima said. Sales accelerated in 2009 after the police started conducting cognitive functioning tests on all drivers of motor vehicles aged 75 or older when they renew driving license.

A revised traffic regulation in the same year further boosted their sales when it allowed a bicycle with a rider aged 16 or older to carry two young children if it meets new stricter safety standards.

Parents with preschool children found electrically power-assisted bicycles a suitable way of taking their children to a day-care center, as “many preschool facilities in urban areas prohibit parents from using a car to bring their kids” to avoid traffic congestion and accidents, Kashima said.

To address such needs from working parents, a Panasonic Corp subsidiary teamed up with baby products maker Combi Corp in 2018 to jointly develop an electric bike ridden with a young child. They launched a second model of their collaboration in December, featuring a sunshade installed on the child seat.

The Panasonic bicycle unit decided to invest about 1.5 billion yen ($14 million) to beef up production of electric bicycles at a factory in Osaka Prefecture, western Japan, planning to increase shipments to 380,000 units in fiscal 2020 from the current 300,000 units per year.

However, the increasing number of riders on electric bicycles has resulted in more accidents involving such bikes. As of the end of November 2019, 54 people had been killed that year nationwide in accidents while riding electric bikes, rising from 28 such deaths in 2009, according to the National Police Agency.

“The vehicle alone weighs nearly 30 kilograms and runs at some level of speed to balance itself. It’s useful, but also dangerous to a rider and pedestrians,” said Mio Suzuki, an associate professor who specializes in traffic engineering and traffic policy at Tokai University.

“A lecture on traffic rules and how to ride an electric bicycle safely should be provided when people buy one,” she added.

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