Reuters International

A man pushes an electric bicycle over the bridge in Pyongyang, North Korea May 6, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

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By James Pearson

PYONGYANG (Reuters) - Wheels have long been a sign of economic status for both individuals and nations, and on the lightly trafficked streets of Pyongyang, capital of impoverished and isolated North Korea, electric bicycles are the hottest new ride on the road.

Almost unseen two years ago, the Chinese-made two-wheelers are a common site this week in the city, which hosts the first congress of the country's ruling Workers' Party in 36 years.

Kim Jong Un, whose family has run the country for nearly 70 years, is expected to consolidate his leadership at the congress.[nL3N18219L]

While pedal-powered bikes still predominate on Pyongyang's wide avenues, the electric bike trend began in the last year, locals and foreign residents of the North Korean capital said.

On Saturday, a Reuters journalist covering the congress saw six of the bikes in the space of 10 minutes.

"You can carry luggage," said Kim Chol Jin, a computer science student at Kim Chaek University of Technology, who was riding his electric bike along Mirae Scientists Street.

"My wife bought me this to help shorten my commute," he told Reuters journalists, who were accompanied by a government guide.

The proliferation of electric bicycles follows another recent local consumer trend: a surge in residential usage of LED light bulbs and solar panels, to get around the country's chronic electricity shortage.

A bike made by a Chinese company called Anqi was for sale this week in Pyongyang's Kwangbok Department Store for 2.62 million won - around $330 at the unofficial exchange rate of 8,000 won to the dollar. While that is well beyond the reach of the average North Korean, an expanding grey market economy has given rise to a growing consumer class known as "donju", or "masters of money".

Most residents still commute by foot or on the city's crowded buses.

Ou Xiongfei, sales manager at another company, Benling Cycle Tech Limited Co in Dongguan, China, said its electric bikes and motorbikes are exported via trading companies to countries including Argentina, Iran and North Korea.

"Lots of our e-bikes and e-motorcycles are exported to North Korea," she told Reuters by phone.

Traffic is getting busier in Pyongyang, which last year began laying out its first dedicated bicycle lanes.

To ease congestion, authorities have even introduced a system to alternate the days vehicles are allowed on the once all-but empty roads.

Traffic is still far from gridlock, but electric bikes have now joined the taxis, a growing fleet of private cars, and the Soviet-era trolleybuses that have plied the capital for decades.

The trolleys are hooked up to the electricity grid, making them vulnerable to outages, so electric bikes are an increasingly popular alternative when power doesn't flow to the people.

(Additional reporting by Shanghai newsroom; Editing by Tony Munroe and Will Waterman)

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