There was a time—an instant really—when it seemed like e-bike advocates had captured lightning in a bottle.
The E-BIKE Act, a bill introduced by Rep. Jimmy Panetta (D-CA) and Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) in 2021, was placed in the Inflation Reduction Act that was passed by the House of Representatives in 2022. It would have rewarded constituents with a 30 percent tax credit (up to $900) on the purchase of new electric bicycles that cost less than $4,000—a potent incentive for Americans to choose an environmentally friendly, low-cost alternative to driving cars.
It was popular. It was good for the Earth. It would have helped low-income Americans. So, naturally, the Senate killed it. In the end, the E-BIKE Act was removed from the final version of the IRA after a surprise agreement between Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY)—an unfortunate victim of old-fashioned Washington backroom politics.
“That would have been a really incredible moment had it been part of the bill that was ultimately signed into law and passed by the Senate last summer,” David Zipper, a visiting fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Taubman Center for State and Local Government, told The Daily Beast. “But it got killed in the negotiations between Schumer and Manchin, which was really frustrating and disappointing.”
Despite the letdown, Zipper and other transportation policy experts see a bright future for e-bikes. While electric car companies like Tesla and vehicles like the Ford F-150 Lightning dominate the headlines, the two-wheeled variety is slowly making its way up the road—and is even on pace to overtake EVs this year.
“The future transportation revolution is already here—and she arrived on an e-bike,” Janette Sadik-Khan, former commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation and chair of the National Association of Transportation Officials, told The Daily Beast. “They’re a great alternative to driving. They don’t require parking. They’re less expensive. They’re really changing how people are getting around and I see it every day when I walk or bike in the city.”
The surge of e-bike adoption might be a surprise, especially when you consider the stratospheric highs that EVs have hit in recent years. Since 2020, the electric car market has tripled—having gone from 10 million to 30 million on the road in 2022. Those numbers are only set to rise as countries like China double down on EV production, and the U.S. expands its EV presence through tax credits and charging infrastructure.
Electric cars are hotter right now than they’ve ever been—but they’re not the only electrified transportation method set to boom. While the E-BIKE Act didn’t pass at a federal level, advocates have been heartened to see that states and municipalities are beginning to lay the path for an e-bike revolution. And it’s coming even faster than they thought.
“It takes a few months to put together a legislation package even in the best of circumstances usually, but already in the last couple of weeks, there have been proposals put forth,” Zipper said. In the months surrounding the passing of the IRA, states like Vermont, New York, and Oregon have introduced e-bike rebate programs. Cities like Washington D.C., Nashville, and Austin have introduced proposals in the past few weeks alone.
It’s a trend that doesn’t seem like it’s going to go away any time soon either. E-bike sales outpaced EVs and hybrid cars in both 2021 and 2022. That trend is only expected to grow even more in 2023 and beyond as incentive programs get introduced, the wider public embraces micro mobility, and governments reckon with climate change.
“It seems like there was a lot of attention coming from the states and cities where leaders are particularly concerned about climate change, and rather dubious about the value of having autocentric urban areas,” Zipper adds.
Electrifying the Rockies
Nestled in the thin air of the Colorado Rockies, the city of Denver is setting a trend for the rest of America. In 2022, the Mile High City implemented an e-bike rebate program that grew out of a 2020 vote to increase sales tax to fund $40 million a year for climate change initiatives. When it was introduced, there was a lot of hope from climate change and e-bike advocates that it would be at least a modest success—but that wasn’t the case.
Instead, the program completely blew the doors off even the most optimistic expectations. Denver’s e-bike rebate program was so popular that the September round of the rebate program was claimed in nine minutes of its opening. By the end of 2022, more than 4,700 e-bike rebates were issued with nearly half going to low-income residents. And by all accounts, it’s been successful in its goal of reducing driving. In a survey, 71 percent of those who rode e-bikes said it helped them cut down on their car usage.
The rebate itself wasn’t complicated. The program allowed Denverites to save $300 when purchasing an e-bike, and low-income residents to save $1,200—not that different from other rebate programs. However, where Denver really set itself apart was how it issued the rebate: point-of-sale. Instead of having to wait until tax season in order to apply their e-bike credits, Denverites were able to redeem the rebate as soon as they purchased the bike.
“You actually get the rebate when you show up at the store, so you don’t have to wait until you’re filing your taxes a year later and remember to claim credit for that thing that you bought six months or a year and a half ago,” Zipper said.
He added that Denver’s push to include low-income residents also helped ensure that the “program helps address equity” and provided a framework for other cities and states to do the same. “I give Denver credit for improving on what the [Inflation Reduction Act] initially had.”
For Sadik-Khan, it’s a clear indication of the high consumer demand for e-bikes. She points to the fact that more than half of all trips in the U.S. are less than three miles. “That’s 15 minutes on an e-bike without breaking a sweat,” she said. On top of that, nearly 60 percent of all vehicle trips are less than six miles away from drivers’ homes.
“We saw Denver burn through $9 million in subsidies in six months for purchasing e-bikes,” she said. “I think that’s an indication of the pent up demand for them. As car dependent as the United States is, we have the greatest capacity for growth in the e-bike market.”
Why We Can’t Have Nice Things
But there are speed bumps on the road to our post-car utopia. For one, EVs still suck up a lot of the oxygen when it comes to the future of transportation. Despite losing $700 billion in market value, Tesla still dominates the headlines and conversations around electric. The EV market is set to boom even more as legacy car makers like Ford, Chevrolet, Nissan, Volkswagen, and Toyota roll out new electric cars and products.
Federal and state governments have also enacted lucrative tax credit programs for consumers looking to purchase electric vehicles as well as ones for automakers to churn them out at a healthy pace. When it comes to electric, cars are what both producers and consumers are thinking about the most—and there’s a reason for that: As a culture, we’re car obsessed—and that obsession comes through in the way that we design our cities.
For more than a century, our transportation infrastructure has been molded to prioritize automobiles and not really much else. We’ve sacrificed pedestrian- and bike-friendly city design in order to make sure that cars have the roads they need to travel to where they need to go and parking spaces for when they get there.
This has resulted in infrastructure that is fundamentally unfriendly and, often, outright hostile to pedestrians and cyclists. Despite making up just 1 percent of all trips in the U.S., cyclists make up 2 percent of all fatalities involving a motor vehicle crash—and even more are injured each year. Pedestrian deaths are on the rise too, with many public safety experts pointing to the growing physical size and number of cars as a major factor.
Many of these deaths can be prevented with better infrastructure such as protected bike lanes and car-free roads for pedestrians. However, this is also a much bigger political lift than enacting a rebate program.
“A rebate program is something that’s a benefit to some people and neutral to others,” Zipper explained. “When you rearrange the street to create more protected space for those who are biking or using a scooter, there’s going to be a group of people in any city who are going to feel that as a net loss to them because they’re losing parking or their travel lane became narrower. So even though that’s very much the right thing to do, there’s going to be more push.”
Even rebate programs like the one in Denver aren’t perfect—with its biggest flaw being how easily it can be exploited by corporate greed. This is something we’ve seen played out already: After the IRA was passed providing Americans with a $7,500 tax credit for EVs, companies like GM and Ford coincidentally announced that they would raise the prices for specific electric models by $6,000 to $8,500.
The fear is that the same thing could occur with e-bikes. Not only would it immediately hurt and disincentivize consumers, but it would also cause policymakers to reconsider future e-bike credits. “These rebate programs are going to quickly lose popularity if the bike manufacturers and retailers just end up pocketing the rebates for themselves,” Zipper said. “This is something that I’m hoping that academics and for policy analysts are keeping a close eye on.”
The Future on Two Wheels
In spite of the potential pitfalls of rebate programs and stubborn politics, the e-bike revolution is rolling. Sure, it might not be happening at the federal level—but cities and states are steadily pedaling the rest of the U.S. there.
“Forward looking cities are looking at e-bikes and doing everything they can to help it along,” Sadik-Khan said, “because if even a fraction of cars in cities shift to e-bikes, we’re talking about tens of millions of trips possible in a fraction of the road space, and without the noise and punishment that millions of car trips take out on roads.”
The real question is not if but when it’ll finally get recognized and boosted at a federal level. While the E-BIKE Act’s exclusion from the IRA was disappointing, Sadik-Khan believes it’s only a matter of time before we see federal incentives arrive. After all, bikes are cheaper than cars by a massive margin. It’s much less of a financial headache to provide funding for e-bikes than it is for EVs.
If and when that happens, and there is even more reason for every day travelers and commuters to go electric, we might find that breaking our toxic relationship with cars can be truly as easy as riding a bike.