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Electric Vehicles

How Cities Can Ignite an E-Bike Revolution

Federal vehicle subsidies are focused on electric cars. There’s a better way.

A man riding an e-bike.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

The United States is about to spend a ton of money on electric vehicle subsidies. The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) contains a tax credit of up to $7,500 for electric cars and trucks, depending on multiple complicated rules and requirements that will be phased in over time.

Unfortunately, the IRA has no such subsidies for another promising electric vehicle: the e-bike. (Progressive members of Congress tried to insert one but were slapped down.) These are both far cheaper and a far more efficient use of resources.

Fortunately, e-bikes are cheap enough that it doesn't take the federal government to make a difference with policy. Even medium-sized cities can increase uptake with modest subsidies. The key will be to also change street design and regulations so that people feel confident enough to ride.

The problem with American electric vehicles is the same problem as with our gas-powered models: They’re too dang big. The Ford F-150 has been the top-selling automobile in the country for many years, and the electric version — while admittedly quite nifty — weighs 3.25 tons. The new electric Hummer is even more ridiculous, coming in at 9,000 pounds, with a 212-kilowatt-hour battery that weighs more than a Mazda Miata.

That elephantine size drastically reduces the environmental benefits of switching to an EV. Cars still require tons of steel, aluminum, and plastic to manufacture, which typically means emitting lots of greenhouse gases, particularly for steel. (A Swedish state-owned company has worked out a zero-carbon steel technology, but it is only just entering the market, and its full production system won’t be online until 2026.) The majority of U.S. electricity is also still being produced with fossil fuels, at least for the time being.

Now, that is not to say that we shouldn’t be subsidizing EVs. Driving is a major source of emissions and we do need to electrify automobiles. Instead of our current path, we should be following the example of Norway, where the vast majority of cars sold are already electric thanks to a combination of subsidies and taxes, but there is also a progressive weight tax to push against this tendency toward bloat.

Still, in addition to switching over to EVs, we would be wise to simply drive less. In addition to developing zero-carbon sources of energy, we can also reduce emissions by using energy more efficiently — and the e-bike is the perfect tool here. We don’t actually need to use a massive metal box for as many trips as we do. More than 95 percent of car trips are 30 miles or less, and nearly 60 percent are five miles or less. Electric assistance means e-bikes can be used for commuting in most locations since you don’t get nearly as sweaty. Cargo bikes are perfect for a trip to the grocery store, or for dropping the kids off at school. With proper snow removal, you can even ride in the dead of winter, as a bunch of Finnish schoolchildren have ably demonstrated.

Then because they don’t weigh 9,000 pounds, e-bikes are a hugely more efficient use of scarce resources. A single e-Hummer battery is roughly 350 times the size of the one in Rad Power’s popular RadRover 6 — which also costs $2,100 instead of $87,000 and up, and can use ordinary wall power instead of an expensive high-voltage charger. Put simply, mass e-bike adoption would give us hundreds of times more decarbonization for our policy dollar.

This logic is so compelling that e-bike sales have actually already outpaced electric car sales for many years straight. It’s a simple and cheap way to cut down on car trips and all their associated expenses, and gets you a bit of exercise to boot. So when Denver set up an e-bike rebate program, it was a wild success — a recent additional pool of rebate money was snapped up in 20 minutes. This rebate could also be collected right at the point of sale, rather than having to remember to file it with your taxes, which surely improved uptake. Similar programs are also bearing fruit in Vermont and Oregon, and one is being set up in California.

But this must be a tiny fraction of the potential pool of buyers. America, with its sprawling cities, dangerous multilane “stroads,” and meager pedestrian or cyclist infrastructure, is one of the most bike-hostile countries in the world. Even in dense cities like New York, cyclists are routinely flattened by cars. This undoubtedly prevents many people who would take up an e-bike from doing so.

However, it’s not that difficult to make even a relatively sprawly city safe for e-bikes. The key thing is to build physically separated bike lanes with curbs, bollards, parking, or other obstacles that keep cars out, and connect the lanes into a citywide network so people can get close to their destination without ever leaving the lane. Longer distances are no big deal with electric assistance — what matters is safety. Any cyclist knows that with American drivers, traditional painted bicycle gutters will be instantly used for double parking (if not lunatic passing on the right), which can make them more dangerous than no lane at all.

It’s also worth mandating speed governors and speed limits in bike lanes (which are already present in many places). Many de-restricted e-bikes can easily go 30 or even 50 miles per hour — essentially making them a motorcycle. That is both dangerous in a bike lane with many normal bikes traveling much more slowly, and risky for the cyclist who is going motorcycle speeds without proper motorcycle-grade protective gear. A full-face motorcycle helmet in particular is far, far more protective than the typical bike helmet.

Now, there should be speed governors in cars as well — indeed, it’s probably more important than for bikes — but that’s a subject for another article.

American cities have a long, long way to go before they become as bike-friendly as Amsterdam or Copenhagen. But we should remember that not that long ago, both of those cities were nearly as car-infested as Tulsa is today. It took years of activism, political mobilizing, and policy reforms to turn them into cyclist paradises. There’s every reason for American cities to start following that trail.

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Ryan Cooper profile image

Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper is the managing editor at The American Prospect, and author of the book "How Are You Going to Pay for That?: Smart Answers to the Dumbest Question in Politics."

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