The bicycle is a marvel of engineering that brings mobility, joy, freedom, fitness, and a sense of wellbeing to people from all walks of life. The basic form of the bicycle has not changed much in the past 100 years, as pedaling a bike is one of the most efficient forms of transportation, yet we are experiencing a cycling transformation as the popularity of e-bikes grows. Pedal-assist, battery-powered bikes can go faster and farther with less effort while carrying more cargo and flattening hills. E-bike technology has advanced in the past 5 to 10 years as the mix of battery power and human muscle have powered a steady increase of these zippy vehicles. In 2019, there were some quarter of a million e-bikes imported to the US, and that number more than doubled to over half a million in 2020.
Several studies have verified that e-bikes replace car trips, including a study of North American e-bike owners which found that 62% of e-bike trips replaced trips that otherwise would have been taken by car. The average length of trips otherwise taken by car was 9.3 miles (MacArthur et al., 2018).
As political leaders, city planners, transportation planners, and climate advocates look for viable and equitable climate and traffic-congestion solutions, there is a growing recognition that electric bikes can help replace some car trips of under 10 miles. But the price tag of an e-bike – starting at about $1,200 – is too high for many consumers who are accustomed to paying much less for a bike. To get more people driving less and e-biking more, there has been a movement to copy the policy scheme to financially incentivize electric vehicle sales. Federal, state, and local initiatives are in varying degrees of development and deployment to provide a financial incentive to make e-bikes more affordable.
Our own US Congressman Jimmy Panetta and Earl Blumenauer of Oregon recently introduced the Electric Bicycle Incentive Kickstart for the Environment Act, or the E-BIKE Act for short. If passed in its current form, the bill would offer Americans a refundable tax credit worth 30% off a new e-bike’s purchase price, capped at $1,500. Any e-bike or e-cargo bike that costs less than $8,000 would be eligible. In practice, a purchaser of a new e-bike for $3,000 could claim a $900 credit on their following year’s tax return (and they could do so again if they bought another one three years later). The federal tax credit would be available to those who don’t owe federal taxes, therefore making it available to low-income earners.
On the state level, the California Bicycle Coalition (Cal Bike) is sponsoring AB117 – the E-Bike Stimulus Grants Bill that would allocate $10 million to help 10,000 Californians purchase e-bikes. This bill was introduced by Assembly Member Tasha Boerner Horvath, whose district covers north of the San Diego coastal communities. The E-Bike Stimulus Grants Bill’s precise text and configuration is still being developed, and supporters of the bill are working to have it included in the state legislature’s revised budget. Then, the legislature and governor will negotiate a final 2021/2022 budget that hopefully includes this relatively modest ask. (California’s successful Clean Vehicle Rebate Program has traditionally had an annual budget of $100-$200 million.)
Several local California entities are implementing e-bike rebate programs in places like Healdsburg, Sonoma/Mendocino Counties (Sonoma Clean Power), and Contra Costa County to give their residents/customers an affordable, healthy, and sustainable mobility option.
Sonoma Clean Power very recently initiated an equity-focused e-bike rebate program that offers a $1,000 voucher for their low-income customers to buy e-bikes. Most other programs offer lower amounts or a percentage off the price of a new e-bike with higher rebate amounts for qualified low-income participants. The City of Santa Cruz has allocated funds for a pilot e-bike/bike rebate program for downtown workers as part of their Go Santa Cruz program, which has set out to reduce single-occupancy vehicle trips to less than 50% of overall trips downtown. Ecology Action is working with the City on the design and development of this pilot, which will have an equity component. People for Bikes, a leading bicycle advocacy organization, has contributed to this effort, and Ecology Action is still seeking additional funds to position the pilot for success and hopefully scaling for the entire county.
Ecology Action coordinated the successful E-bike Commuter Incentive Rebate Program of 2000-2007, which got some 1,630 residents on e-bikes for a variety of transportation and recreational trips. The program included a 2-hour safety and e-bike how-to workshop and vouchers that were redeemable at local bike shops.
Now more than ever, we need a multitude of solutions to reduce carbon emissions and build a more sustainable, healthy, and livable world. E-bikes are a great tool in our collective work to address the climate crisis.