In summary

Purchase incentives for electric bikes would put zero-emission transportation within reach for many more Californians.

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By Jason Henderson, Special to CalMatters

Jason Henderson teaches urban geography at San Francisco State University, He is the author of “Street Fight: The Politics of Mobility in San Francisco.”

In front of an electric vehicle showroom in Sacramento last September, Gov. Gavin Newsom pledged to end the sales of gasoline-powered vehicles in California by 2035 to help meet the state’s climate goals. In May, he raised the stakes by proposing to spend $3.2 billion on zero-emission vehicles over the next three years.

Electric Vehicles, or EVs, might be cleaner transportation in some ways when compared to gasoline-fueled vehicles that increase global warming. When powered by renewable energy, EVs are definitely a step in the right direction.

But in a recent paper I wrote, I explained the downsides of an all EV approach. Electrifying autos and trucks will lock us into private automobiles for another generation. 

EV production and consumption might escalate rather than reduce global resource and energy demand, with geopolitical ramifications we have to recognize. And EVs will lay claim to many of the same spaces designated for green mobility, such as cycle tracks, bus lanes, and compact, walkable spaces. A narrow focus on EVs also locks us into an unjust transportation system whereby people who can afford thousands of dollars a year for cars will leave behind those who cannot afford EVs. 

While we commit so much of California’s climate funds to electric cars it’s fair to ask if there are other options worth exploring.

E-bikes replace car trips

A recent study by the College of Engineering at Portland State University found that subsidies for electric bikes are more cost-effective than electric car incentives at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from private cars. The study focused on the greenhouse gas impacts of subsidies for electric bikes, battery-electric cars and plug-in hybrid electric cars in Oregon. It found that e-bike subsidies, like those in CalBike’s proposed $10M E-Bike Affordability Program, were the most cost-effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

As lawmakers in California contemplate billions of dollars in spending to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from private cars, we now have a chance to also support electric bikes with a bill introduced by Assemblymember Tasha Boerner Horvath, a Democrat from Encinitas. Assembly Bill 117, the E-Bike Affordability Bill, would establish a pilot program to incentivize the purchase of electric bicycles as a means of reducing vehicle miles traveled, reducing air, water and noise pollution, and helping Californians get more exercise. To implement the program, legislators must allocate $10 million in the budget being negotiated among lawmakers this month.

Boerner Horvath explains, “E-bikes help us cut out shorter car trips, reduce emissions and move closer to our ambitious climate goals. Now is the time to make E-bikes affordable for all Californians.”

What I find hopeful about this bill is that the proposed “E-Bike Affordability Program” would provide purchase incentives targeted at low-income residents, putting zero-emissions transportation within reach for many more Californians. Plus, E-bikes plug into a regular wall outlet and cost about 1 cent per mile to operate — no need for charging stations.

Compared to EVs, E-bikes are carbon crushers. Investing in biking makes people healthier and happier, improves traffic safety and reduces traffic congestion. In the future, we should consider a tax break for small businesses to purchase cargo E-bikes for local deliveries. And a truly just mobility would include rebates and incentives to buy human pedaled bikes as well. 

Mobility justice requires us to move beyond focusing on cars. We have less than a decade to get our emissions down to sustainable levels. Centering the bicycle, including E-bikes, in our urban transportation future is both necessary and viable.

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