If governments are going to subsidize electric vehicles, why not e-bikes?

Big easy with kids
© Big Easy with kids on back/ Surly

Eben Weiss, the Bike Snob, is an unexpected source for this proposal.

Everybody is writing articles these days about how self-driving cars are years away, or that sales of electric cars are running out of gas. But there is a transportation revolution happening, and that is with e-bikes. And while governments around the world keep throwing money at electric car subsidies, Eben Weiss, the cantankerous writer formerly known as the Bike Snob, writes in Outside Magazine: Want to Save the Environment? Subsidize E-Bikes.

I will admit that I was a bit surprised at this, given that Weiss is, well, a bike snob. There are a lot of them out there who look down their noses at e-bikes, including, very prominently, Mikael Colville-Andersen of Copenhagenize fame. But Weiss notes, as I have, that electric cars may not have tail pipes, but they still cause congestion, still pollute with particulates, and still have the "devastating physical and economic toll of living in a country where you can’t fully participate in life without indenturing yourself to a car."

Ultimately, switching from gasoline-powered cars to electric ones is like ditching your smoking habit for a vape pen. Sure, you may be spewing fewer toxins, but you stay just as addicted, and you’re still passing that addiction down to the next generation.

Weiss notes that almost 60 percent of car trips in the U.S. are six miles or less. That distance can be hard on a regular bike, especially in Seattle where it is hilly or Houston where it is sweaty, but it's much, much easier on an e-bike. But decent e-bikes are expensive, especially if you want to haul the family and the groceries around.

In light of all this, it makes sense to subsidize e-bikes even more so than it does to subsidize electric cars. According to one study that looked at promoting cleaner transportation options in the U.K., “the cost of saving a kilogram of CO2 via schemes to boost e-bikes is less than half the cost of existing grants for electric cars and at a cost per purchase of less than one-tenth of the grant for electric cars.”

Those studies don't even look at the issue of embodied carbon, the CO2 emitted making the materials that go into a vehicle, which is greater with an electric car than with a conventional one. It's not just the cars, either; it's the concrete in the roads and the steel in the bridges and the parking structures. They also don't discuss how much better our cities would be with a few fewer cars. As I have noted, if all cars were electric, our cities would be a little cleaner and quieter.

But it doesn't change sprawl, congestion, parking or safety of pedestrians and cyclists. It doesn't change the fact that in a crowded city, putting a single person in a big metal box is just silly.


Last night I had to zip over to the drug store to fill a prescription. I was about to jump in the car when I remembered, "Hey, I have an e-bike!" and hopped on it instead. I am not alone in finding that it is just as fast as a car and a lot easier to park. I am not alone in finding that it is changing how I get around. Eben Weiss is right; they should get a subsidy, because the carbon bang for the buck is a whole lot higher.

A few years ago, I was writing posts with titles like Let's stop bashing the e-bikes; they are still better than driving because people kept commenting "Or you could just ride a regular bike. I'm all for e-bikes for those with physical disabilities or elderly folks. But if you're able, save a little bigger piece of the environment and use your human power." One commenter responded: "In other news, cyclists can apparently be really snobbish...." We don't get so many negative comments about e-bikes anymore, and when someone known as The Bike Snob is touting e-bikes, you know there's a revolution happening.

If governments are going to subsidize electric vehicles, why not e-bikes?
Eben Weiss, the Bike Snob, is an unexpected source for this proposal to save the environment.

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