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A Simple Solution for Getting Cars Off the Road Right Now

Photo: Paul Bersebach/Orange County Register via Getty Images

At first glance, electric bicycles and tax rebates don’t appear to have much in common. But they share two important characteristics: Both are fairly uncool, and both may be hugely important in getting gas guzzlers off the road in American cities.

E-bikes may never be as eye-catching as their more stylish cousin, the scooter, but they are already becoming an affordable commuting option for millions of Americans. And tax rebates, while not the flashiest government benefit, could help usher them fully into the mainstream.

The key element here is cost. The federal rebate for battery-electric and plug-in hybrid cars takes as much as $7,500 off the sticker price, which is a solid chunk of cash — until you realize that the cheapest, new full-size electric vehicle costs around $40,000. But e-bikes, which provide a battery-powered boost to your pedaling or do all the work for you, depending on the class, generally range between $1,000 and $2,000. And that’s before the 30 percent federal rebate proposed by Representatives Earl Blumenauer of Oregon and Jimmy Panetta of California.

“What we’ve seen is that it’s the best way to get more butts on bikes,”
says Panetta. Their bill, which was initially proposed as standalone legislation, was folded into the version of the Build Back Better Act that passed the House, and whose fate in the Senate rests mostly on the whims of Joe Manchin. It would provide a $4.1 billion fund to give out $900 in tax rebates for individuals making $75,000 or less.

“What you’re seeing on the central coast of California is that once you get people on these bikes they have an appreciation that this is not just about recreation, it’s about transportation,” he says, noting that the rapid speed of e-bikes (roughly from 20 to 28 mph) tends to attract questions from other bikers. “Especially if you’re on a conventional bike going up a hill and see someone twice your age on an electric bicycle going past you.”

States are getting in on the e-bike rebate game too. A California program that begins in July offers a $750 rebate, and Vermont shells out $300. In Washington, Governor Jay Inslee has proposed a $1,000 rebate for zero-emission motorcycles and e-bikes that can be used in addition to the federal coupon. Bills in both the New York State Assembly and State Senate offer as much as $1,100 in immediate cash back on an e-bike purchase. If the New York and federal bills become law, an e-bike that costs $2,000 could potentially go for just $400 — with $1,000 (or 50 percent of sticker price) returned immediately from the state fund and a $600 credit (or 30 percent of sticker) on their next tax return. Both bills allow for rebates to be combined, according to their sponsors.

This would be a major step toward getting more e-bikes on the streets of New York, where they were legalized less than two years ago. The vehicles are a great fit for cities and their immediate suburbs. A 20-mph pedal assist bike can cover ten miles of bike lane in about half an hour — a pretty breezy ride for anyone who’s tried to drive during gridlock traffic hours. More bikes mean less traffic, which NYU Rudin Center for Transportation associate director Sarah Kaufman notes is a major factor for reducing local carbon emissions, which can cause local ozone to spike on the ground in the summer. Widespread bike adoption, she says, can “reduce pollution on the streets because they reduce car traffic congestion. Cars stuck in traffic will end up spewing more carbon into the atmosphere.”

And the lifetime emissions generated by e-bikes pale in comparison to options we think of as low-carbon, data from the transportation publication Lufthansa Innovation Hub shows. E-bikes end up eating more than five times less carbon than electric cars, which currently enjoy a far more generous federal subsidy.

They’re not a cure-all, of course. E-bikes demand road maintenance, can be dangerous, and are expensive to outfit for the disabled. (So are cars.) There’s only as much grocery storage as you can fit on your backpack and seatpost rack, to say nothing of room for kids, and winter weather is an impediment. But it’s not like e-bikes need to supplant cars to have an effect. If they merely take a bite out of single-occupancy car excursions — which, per Department of Transportation estimates, make up 42 percent of all rides — it would be a big deal. One 2020 study from Portland State University revealed the impact of moderate levels of e-bike usage: If e-bikes replaced just 15 percent of car travel, total carbon emissions from passenger transportation could be reduced by 12 percent. In 2017, the Department of Energy found that almost 60 percent of one-way car trips were less than six miles, which is well within the window for an easy e-bike jaunt. While storage may be a concern in a place like New York City, having a one-car, one-e-bike split could be the model for the next generation of the nuclear family in the suburbs or other small cities.

To truly face the climate crisis head-on, we need systematic change: state planning to boost the adaptation of renewables, a reevaluation of nuclear power, and a movement toward energy democracy, to pick some viable recent examples. But small-seeming solutions like tax rebates for e-bikes can quickly and meaningfully change reality on the ground. No, it’s not as bold as giving free electric vehicles to everyone. But it’s pretty damn hard to imagine Democrats getting a free-bike bill across the table in deep-blue states, let alone at the federal level, where handouts are a hard stop. We need both transformational ideas and easy, attainable wins to keep carbon in the ground. This one is as simple as riding a bike that does the pedaling for you.

A Simple Solution for Getting Cars Off the Road Right Now