It's Time to Treat E-Bikes Like Vehicles
As gas prices surge, electric bikes could be replacing car trips and saving fuel. Why won’t federal officials promote them?
(Bloomberg) -- With gasoline prices surging following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, U.S. elected officials are trying everything from gas tax “holidays” to dipping into the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserves to placate drivers worried about overstretched budgets. The Biden administration has suggested that long-term salvation lies in dumping gas-powered vehicles entirely: “When we have electric cars powered by clean energy, we will never have to worry about gas prices again,” the White House recently tweeted. “And autocrats like Putin won’t be able to use fossil fuels as weapons against other nations.”
In the meantime, Americans are rediscovering classic fuel-saving habits, like opting for smaller vehicles or taking transit. But one promising approach is all but absent from policy discussions: shifting car trips toward increasingly popular e-bikes and e-cargo bikes, which run on pedal power augmented by rechargeable batteries. It’s an omission that speaks volumes about how underappreciated battery-boosted bicycles remain in Washington, even among the most climate-friendly politicians.
Part of the challenge is that it’s not immediately obvious that e-bikes and e-cargo bikes are fundamentally more useful than traditional pedal bikes. For decades, the overwhelming majority of adult bicycles in the U.S. have been sold to “weekend warriors” rather than people riding to the office or dashing over the pharmacy. “In the United States, a bike is something you put in your car and take to a place to drive in a circle before you bring it back home again,” said Horace Dediu, an industry analyst who closely follows the bike and e-bike markets.
Chris Cherry, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Tennessee who has studied e-bike adoption trends, says that the story changes dramatically when you add battery power. “People use e-bikes for trips that they would not otherwise use a bike for, like commute trips and shopping trips,” Cherry said.
The extra oomph of an e-bike becomes transformative in numerous scenarios that may discourage regular riding, including muggy weather or a route with steep climbs — especially for older riders and those not in Tour de France-grade physical condition. Cherry also noted e-bikes’ ability to maintain a faster pace for long distances over challenging terrain: “People feel safer on e-bikes because they can keep up more easily with traffic.”
A 2018 analysis of e-bike users conducted by Cherry and his collaborators found that just under 10% of e-bike trips replaced car trips. A separate study examining bikeshare in Knoxville, Tennessee, concluded that 11% of e-bikeshare trips replaced car trips — compared to virtually none of the pedal bikeshare trips. The pattern seems to hold in the U.K. as well; an e-bike trial in Brighton reduced participants’ miles driven by 20%.
When you add the hauling capacity of cargo bikes and trikes, which can accommodate small children and heavy loads, the potential to leave the car at home — or ditch it entirely — rises even further. “An e-bike is a car trip replacer,” Cherry said, “but an e-cargo bike is a car replacer. An e-cargo bike offers a chance to do just about anything that most Americans need a car to do, like school runs, grocery runs, and so on.”
Every time an e-bike or e-cargo bike is used lieu of a car, society receives a cascade of benefits. Greenhouse gas emissions are dramatically lower, even if the car being replaced is electric. A two-wheeler consumes little street space and poses a negligible safety risk to other road users. And even with the motor providing some of the muscle, the cyclist will receive a surprisingly good workout.
With so much potential, you might expect national leaders to bend over backwards to catalyze e-bike uptake. But that’s hardly the case.
The House of Representatives did pass an e-bike tax credit last fall as part of the Build Back Better Act, which has stalled in the Senate. But compared to the lavish subsidies offered for electric cars, the proposed e-bike credit was puny. Only individuals making less than $82,000 would qualify for an e-bike credit, capped at $900, while those making up to $250,000 could receive up as much as $12,500 towards an electric car. (Even more baffling, Congress chose to make any e-bike costing over $4,000 ineligible for a credit, eliminating almost all e-cargo bikes.)
Caron Whitaker, the deputy executive director of the League of American Bicyclists, was involved in negotiating the proposed federal e-bike credit. Responding to complaints (including from me) that the proposal was underwhelming, Whitaker tweeted last November, “We keep being asked by Congress for more research showing the [greenhouse gas] benefits of ebikes.” She continued: “The real problem is that we haven’t convinced enough climate advocates, both in Congress and the NGO community, that it’s possible to shift enough (e)bike trips to make a critical difference in GHG.”
“The climate community doesn’t believe in e-bikes,” she told me recently. “And if you’re a member of Congress and you’re thinking about the best ways to reduce emissions, you’re going to talk to the climate advocates.”
Another problem is the sheer lack of familiarity among elected officials: “If members of Congress don’t represent urban districts, they probably haven’t seen e-bikes or recognized their transformative potential,” Whitaker said. As a result, representatives mentally lump e-bikes together with pedal bikes, which are mainly used for fun. “When members of Congress think about e-bikes, they think about recreation.”
And as for e-cargo bikes, good luck finding someone on Capitol Hill who has ridden one. “E-cargo bikes are even further down the curve than e-bikes,” Whitaker said.
As a result, Democratic leaders show only tepid interest in two-wheeled EVs as a solution to climate change and oil dependence, often not even treating them as vehicles. The White House often acts as a cheerleader for electric cars, issuing fact sheets for its steps to promote “clean cars and trucks” as well as an “Electric Vehicle Charging Plan” — neither of which mention e-bikes. President Joe Biden took a spin in a Hummer EV whose massive battery weighs as much as an entire Honda Civic (or nearly 400 e-bike batteries).
Now, as federal officials scramble for ways to blunt the pain from surging gas prices, the absence of two-wheelers from national policy discussions seems particularly misguided. One booster dryly tweeted: “There may never have been a better time to buy a bike. Check them out at these great prices,” suggesting that e-bikes and e-cargos cost 30 and 50 tanks of gas, respectively.
Jokes aside, the logic makes sense. But appreciating it requires seeing e-bikes and e-cargo bikes as the climate-change-fighting, life-saving vehicles that they are — and not as frivolous toys. Too many federal officials have yet to make that leap.
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