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E-bike incentives are a costly way to cut carbon emissions, but they also promote health, equity and cleaner air

Christopher R. Cherry, University of Tennessee; John MacArthur, Portland State University, and Luke Jones, Valdosta State University, The Conversation on

Published in News & Features

E-bikes have captured widespread attention across the U.S., and for good reason. They are the most energy-efficient way to move from place to place, providing exercise in the process, and offer enough assistance while pedaling uphill or into headwinds to make them usable for many types of riders.

Greenhouse gas emissions from e-bikes are much lower than those from either gasoline-powered or electric cars. Some cities and states are encouraging the use of e-bikes by providing purchase incentives, often drawing on public funds dedicated to curbing climate change.

Currently, over 100 cities and states have or plan to launch e-bike incentive programs, most funded by energy or environment initiatives. However, there has been little research on the effectiveness of these types of programs, how to design them or how to define goals.

We study transportation from many angles, including innovation, sustainability and economics. Our new study, published in the journal Transportation Research Part D, investigates the effectiveness of several types of e-bike purchase incentives and the investment required to induce additional e-bike purchases.

We found that incentives do spur extra e-bike purchases, but at a relatively high cost compared with narrowly defined climate benefits. We find that a public agency using a point-of-purchase discount would have to distribute about US$4,000 in incentives to generate one additional e-bike purchase. This is because over 80% of people who buy an e-bike would likely have bought one even without the discount. For perspective, it takes about $30,000 worth of incentives to induce an electric car purchase.

Nonetheless, e-bikes provide many other benefits. They make mobility easier and more affordable for many people, including older adults and people with disabilities. They bolster the case for investing in bike paths and infrastructure, which produce economic, safety and mobility benefits for cities. And they boost health by promoting exercise. In our view, cities and states should assess e-bike incentive investments based on this broad range of benefits, rather than focusing solely on a narrow environmental objective.

 

Clean technology incentives tend to be focused on a specific outcome – usually, reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This works well for most energy-related upgrades, such as replacing old air conditioners, improving home insulation and generating electricity from wind and solar power. Consumers want the services that these devices deliver – cool air, comfortable conditions indoors and electricity that’s available and affordable. The new devices simply deliver those familiar goods more sustainably.

E-bike incentives are different. They invite people to adopt a new technology that can fundamentally change recipients’ travel patterns. In fact, while replacing car trips with e-bike trips can provide substantial climate benefits, those benefits may be smaller than other benefits that are less widely measured. Focusing narrowly on reducing greenhouse gas emissions by replacing car trips means providing incentives to people who drive the most, or who drive the biggest gas guzzlers.

But what about carless households, transit riders or bicyclists? For them, e-bikes can make it much easier to travel in most North American cities. That increased mobility could provide greater access to jobs, shopping or other important services, such as health care.

Transportation is the largest source of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Electrifying as much of it as possible is an important strategy for slowing climate change. However, e-bike incentives – and, indeed, electric car incentives – are pretty expensive ways to reduce emissions.

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