How E-Bike Rebates Will Make Cycling Safer

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How E-Bike Rebates Will Make Cycling Safer in Denver

In April 2022, the city began offering residents $400 off a new electric bike or $900 off an e-cargo bike, with low-income residents eligible for an additional $800 discount. The program was a sensation: Over 4,700 Denverites snapped up a voucher in 2022, forcing overwhelmed city staff to pause the application process. The rebates’ value dropped in 2023, but the city’s newest batch of 860 vouchers, distributed in January, were still snapped up in about 20 minutes.

Mayor Michael Hancock took a victory lap in a press release last month that credited the new e-bikes for already replacing over 100,000 car miles: “This program showed there was a desire in our community for new, sustainable mobility options.”

Beyond reducing emissions, all that e-biking likely improved residents’ health, too — provided, of course, that riders don’t get struck by a motor vehicle. Like many US cities, biking in Denver traffic can be uncomfortable and sometimes perilous. Last December two people were killed while biking there.

In fact, Denver’s need for better bike infrastructure points to a hidden power of e-bike incentives. Thanks to the rebates, many residents will get their first taste of the joys and anxieties of navigating their city on two wheels. That experience could compel them to add their voice to those already clamoring for better bike accommodations.

Amplified calls for street safety could be among the most powerful legacies of e-bike rebate programs — not only in Denver, but in the many US states and cities now considering launching their own. If so, they could finally put to rest questions of whether to upgrade bike infrastructure before or only after many residents are riding, a challenge that has bedeviled US cities.

Mike Salisbury, Denver’s transportation energy lead, already sees signs that could happen. He said that the city distributed a survey to rebate recipients last fall to gauge the program’s impact, receiving around 1,000 responses. To his delight, the average respondent said they were using their new e-bike in lieu of a car 3.4 times per week. Better yet, nearly 30% claimed they had not previously biked at all. “That suggests to me that we’re creating new cyclists,” Salisbury said.

But he also noted a frequent complaint from rebate recipients: “The people who started to experience bike infrastructure, they weren’t always happy with it.”

In a comment Salisbury shared, one resident wrote the city: “There is still a lack of bike-friendly infrastructure, especially safe bike lanes, around potential destinations. This makes me hesitate using the e-bike even more because of the risk.” Social media users sounded similar notes. “The ebike program is great,” tweeted one Denverite. “The issue is safe bike lanes and places to ride that you aren’t worried getting hit by a car. Denver needs better bike infrastructure to go with the e-bike program.”

Such reactions will not surprise frazzled American bike commuters who contend that the acute stress of trying to share the streets with 6,000-pound SUVs must be experienced to be understood. Tara Goddard, an assistant professor of landscape architecture and urban planning at Texas A&M, has found that car drivers are more likely to have positive views about cyclists if they themselves ride a bike weekly to get around town.

By all accounts, Denver streets today are safer than they were in the 1990s, when the city earned the ignominious distinction of deploying the first “sharrow,” a bike figure painted atop asphalt that instructs drivers to share the road, but whose actual impact on safety is somewhere between nonexistent and counterproductive. “It’s easy to despair about how sh—y it still is to bike, but we’ve come a long way for sure,” said Jill Locantore, the executive director of the Denver Streets Partnership.

Denver is on track to fulfill Mayor Hancock’s 2018 commitment to build 125 miles of new bike lanes by the end of this year, but the bulk of those still leave cyclists exposed. According to the city’s new transportation plan, only 21 of the city’s 246 miles of bike lanes are protected by parking, bollards or other barriers. As a 2019 study that examined 13 years of data across a dozen US cities confirmed, bike lanes delineated only by paint are considerably less safe than those that are physically separated from traffic.

Salisbury said that he knows that the city’s work is far from finished. “We’re trying to build out more high-comfort bikeways, and connect them,” he said.

By rapidly expanding the ranks of people cycling, Denver’s e-bike program could inject new energy into those plans, easing resistance from residents, business owners and political leaders. “It used to be weird to have an e-bike, and people would stare at you and ask lots of questions,” said Locantore. “Now it’s considered more normal.”

As a headline in the Denver Post warned, the rebate program’s popularity has placed a spotlight on Denver’s inadequate cycling infrastructure: “Denver is adding e-bikes to city streets faster than it is building bike lanes.”

Such discrepancies might be just what’s needed to break through a logjam that has dogged efforts to build high-quality bike infrastructure in the US: Should cities build protected lanes only after there are plenty of people biking, or should the lanes be treated as an inducement for more people to ride? Which comes first, the cyclists or the infrastructure?

To be fair, this question is hardly Talmudic in its nuance; European cities like Paris and London show that major upgrades in bike infrastructure can indeed trigger a subsequent surge in cycling. But US city officials often insist on seeing plenty of people biking before throwing their support behind street adjustments that risk irking car owners.

By compelling around 1% of Denver adults to buy a new e-bike, the city’s rebate program has made it easier to advocate for better bike lanes. Better yet, new riders might demand it themselves. “If you’re actually using a bike to try to get places, you realize, ‘Yeah, we really do need bike lanes for me to get where I need to go,’” said Locantore. “Having that lived experience is really eye-opening.”

As Salisbury described it, “We’re creating new constituents who are going to advocate for better, safer bike infrastructure.”

A few years ago, the sudden emergence of shared e-scooters stoked similar hopes that residents’ views on street safety would shift after they took a spin. “These scooters are really showing that we have to build bike lanes all over the place,” Eric Bunch, the executive director of Kansas City’s BikeWalkKC, told Streetsblog in 2019. In the same article, Nora Kern, then the executive director of Walk Bike Nashville, said that e-scooters were “making the need for protective infrastructure much more urgent.”

E-scooters have had a rocky go of things since then, and their future is uncertain. But e-bikes — which in the US are often owned, rather than shared — could have more staying power, with riders’ enthusiasm for safe infrastructure remaining undimmed.

Of course, enhanced bike lanes would protect more than just e-bikers; those riding pedal bikes, e-scooters, and other forms of micromobility would likewise benefit. And every person who bikes or scoots instead of using a car makes the air a little cleaner (and the planet a little less warm) for all residents.

In less than a year, Denver’s e-bike program has attracted national attention and inspired public officials across the country to study its design. The District of Columbia is now considering a proposal that resembles a carbon copy of Denver’s initiative, and Nashville leaders have introduced one as well. Rhode Island already has its own statewide incentive program, and legislators in Oregon, New York, and Hawaii are considering proposals to create their own.

What should you expect when an e-bike rebate becomes available in your community? Based on Denver’s experience, interested residents would be wise to grab that voucher as quickly as they can, and local bike shops should brace for an influx of shoppers.

Bike advocacy groups, for their part, might want to start searching for a bigger meeting space.