This week, President Joe Biden signed into law the most significant piece of federal climate action in U.S. history, by perhaps an order of magnitude. It’s a big deal, and though he had a few quibbles with the outcome, in his most recent podcast, long-time climate journalist David Roberts put the legislation into context and was full of praise. “The bad stuff is not as bad as it looks, and the good stuff is better than it looks,” Roberts declared, suggesting that the “Inflation Reduction Act,” a landmark bill that includes measures on health, taxes and climate change, will likely exceed its estimated 40% reductions in U.S. carbon.
Passed through budget reconciliation, the act works largely through economic incentives. One of its centerpieces is a set of incentives for electric vehicles (EVs), which together aim to accelerate the decarbonization of the hundreds of millions of American personal vehicles away from gasoline. Instead of filling gas tanks, if the incentives work out, most Americans will be filling up their lithium-ion batteries every day.
But one key piece of the puzzle is missing: electric bicycles. The Build Back Better climate policies, originally proposed last fall, included a $900 tax credit for e-bikes, a provision missing from the legislation signed into law this week.
The absence is a problem because of the simple physics of battery technology: EV batteries get larger based on the mass, speed, and range of the vehicle they are powering. The larger the vehicle, and the farther you want it to go, the larger the EV battery, which makes a 50-pound bicycle far more efficient than a 5,000-pound car.
For electric batteries, it’s almost like a hot dish at a potluck. The scarce resources that go into one EV battery could be divided up into small pieces to serve many more vehicles. For example, the 18.4 kilowatt-hour battery that fuels one Chevy Volt could have been 40 e-bike batteries. For the larger EV options currently being rolled out of Detroit showrooms, the math gets absurd: the 98 kWh and 135 kWh batteries that power the Ford F-150 and Rivian EV pickup trucks, respectively, would power the equivalent of hundreds of e-bikes.
Easy as cutting a cake
Unless you’ve been on one, e-bikes might not sound like a big deal. I first head about them years ago from a friend in the bike industry, fresh back from a conference in Germany. To me, someone who’s been using bicycles for transportation for over a decade, they did not sound particularly appealing.
But everything changed when I had a kid and my wife and I bought a Yuba Supermarché with a Bosch e-assist. All-of-a-sudden, doing car-free errands with the kid became a simple part of the day. Throughout the ride, the electric motor gently assists the person pushing the pedals, so that riding the heavy bicycle becomes as easy as cutting a cake.
And I’m not alone. Especially for people with families, dogs, e-bikes can be the ideal car replacement.
“I bike everywhere!” Ashley Asmus, a St. Paul e-bike convert, told me. “The electric assist on my cargo bike makes me feel more confident mixing with traffic [and] the ridiculous size of my cargo bike also makes me feel more entitled to the road, and less shy about taking the lane.”
For people with little kids or dogs, the e-bike revolution opens up lots of doors. Otherwise grim journeys become fairly innocuous chores and, because e-assist motors allow you to go faster, the trip gets literally shorter, often competitive with drive times.
“On the best days cycling is a lot more fun than driving, [which] was a stressor for me,” admitted Jake Jurss, who rides his e-bike around St. Paul’s East Side. “It calms my mind and sharpens my focus. You see your city more because you are going a little more slowly. You can engage with the weather and discover new routes. Cycling feels more like engaging with the city on a more human level.”
Another feature is that, particularly for parents of younger kids, the cargo models can be a godsend. While it’s not uncommon to see e-bikes all around day cares in Japan or Europe, they’re still something of a novelty in the Twin Cities.
“With my toddler, I appreciate the increased connection we share when we ride together — it’s active bonding time for us and a highlight of our routine,” Cambray Crozier, who’s raising a toddler in St. Anthony Park, told me. “We like riding the Como Gateway trail to the Como Pool, or to the farmers market downtown [where] the newer protected bikeways in downtown St. Paul are lovely to ride.”
The electric battery allows a bit more flexibility about route choices, and most people — myself included — opt to go a bit out of their way to find more comfortable routes. That said, cycling on or crossing busy, high-speed streets remains a big barrier.
“We have easy access to the Grand Rounds Byway and the Midtown Greenway,” Robert Haider, who lives in Linden Hills, told me. “From there, we can get pretty much anywhere in Minneapolis and over to St. Paul. Riding around in Uptown is generally unpleasant, and we usually have to go a bit out of the way to find safer routes.”
State and local e-bike investments
Certainly the cost of e-bikes can be a barrier — most start around $2,000 — which is why the lack of tax incentives in the new federal legislation is a shame. But when you compute the total cost of maintenance, gasoline, parking for (especially gasoline-powered) cars, the equation begins to look more reasonable.
And hope for better e-bike economics is not lost. It’s theoretically possible to see similar programs put in place at the state or local governments, and earlier this year, the city of Denver rolled out a small-scale electric bike incentive program. It allays costs for bikes purchased at local bike shops by $400 to $1,200, depending on income. It’s been wildly successful so far, and compared to municipal investments like municipal parking garages, seems far-sighted.
Still, even without the financial incentives, buying an e-bike remains a tremendous investment. I asked a few people if they had any last advice for the e-bike curious.
“Ease into it,” said Stefanie Hollmichel, who rides her electric bike around her Nokomis neighborhood. “Put the car in the garage for a month and see how you get along without it. If you are thinking of getting an e-cargo bike, this will also help you figure out what sort of bike you need.”