E-Bikes, Equity, and Gentrification: How Local Initiatives Can Maximize the Benefits

E-bikes could serve as a gateway for a more human-centric approach to downtown planning.


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I recently saw a post on social media naming e-bike charging stations (and presumably e-bikes) as a symptom of gentrification. It made me profoundly sad, both because it is in many ways true and because it shouldn’t be. 

On the one hand, living without a car is hardly an option for a majority of people in the U.S. This means e-bikes tend to be an expensive addition to, rather than a replacement for, a car. And as I argued in my post on what we can learn about equity from car-free vacation spots, many people are being priced out of downtowns. That means that even in those rare circumstances where the e-bike becomes a true car replacement, it’s going to depend very much on where you can afford to live. 

Yet in a society where car ownership costs thousands of dollars a year, and where low-income families spend a disproportionate percentage of their money on energy and transportation, it’s also absolutely true that car dependence often keeps people in poverty. And that’s before we even think about the added boost to equity offered by e-bikes opening up biking to many folks for whom regular biking can be a challenge

So rather than arguing over whether e-bikes are or aren’t symptoms of gentrification, my humble suggestion would be we spend our time arguing about how we make sure they are not. And more specifically—given the potential for e-bikes to offer radically cheaper transportation for many—we should focus our attention on how to make them as widely and readily available as possible. 

As I’ve already pointed out, the Inflation Reduction Act was a missed opportunity on that front. It failed to include the e-bike incentives that had been included in earlier Democratic efforts toward a climate bill. As such, one of the cheapest and most efficient forms of transportation will get very little from federal climate spending, even as giant and very expensive electric cars and trucks get a significant sweetener

But all is not lost. Because e-bikes are so much cheaper than cars to both purchase and maintain, there is a significant opportunity for local, regional, and even philanthropic funders to step in where the federal government fails to do so. And as the huge and ongoing e-bike boom has shown, there’s a viral quality to the experience of e-biking: When folks are encouraged to try out a ride, they tend to want to keep riding and they also tend to tell their friends.  

I was thinking about all this today when I met up with Ashley, a friend of a friend, who is currently signed up for Durham, North Carolina’s pilot e-bike program that’s described in the video below.

Having had the bike for a week or two now, Ashley is effusive in his praise of the technology and has been riding it regularly all across the city—including 20-mile round trips out to the mall on the edge of Durham. 

“I’m only on week three, and I’ve ridden it about 100 miles," Ashley told me. "As soon as I got it, I figured out some ways to carry groceries and have been using it to run most of my errands ever since.”

Now, it’s important to note that Ashley may not be the optimal case scenario for getting someone out of the car. He lives within walking distance of the downtown area. And as a bartender at a local restaurant, he was already walking or scootering to his work after the city raised parking costs during the pandemic. Also, as someone who already rode bikes a lot, he was hesitant to say how much more the e-bike, specifically, had him riding.

That said, he echoed my thoughts on e-bikes and weather-related biking: “It’s all very weather dependent. But when the hot weather hit, I was much more likely to switch to an alternative. The e-bike changes all of that. It makes it much easier to just hop on the bike, and not worry about getting all sweaty or running out of energy.” 

When I asked him directly whether it was reducing car journeys, he laughed. “It’s not reducing my car journeys," Ashley said. "But it is absolutely reducing other peoples’. As soon as I got the bike, I told my girlfriend ‘we are never using DoorDash again.’ I just jump on the bike, even for short errands where I would have otherwise gotten a delivery. So yes, it’s reducing the number of cars being driven around downtown.”

I asked Ashley what he’d do if and when the city asks for the bike back. He was pretty clear that buying a high-end e-bike like this one would be a hard sell for his girlfriend. And yet he did say he would consider buying a lower-cost e-bike, electric skateboard, or other forms of micro-mobility vehicles.

He also waxed lyrical about how different downtown would look if the city found ways to increase access to e-bikes for everyone working downtown. Whether it’s e-bike hubs around the bus and train stations, or subsidies and incentives for people working downtown, he reflected that the ripple effects could be enormous: “There really is no reason to have cars driving through downtown Durham for most people. You could easily just have parking for those who need it on the edges, and then open up the downtown core for bikes and pedestrians.”

Of course, any effort to reduce cars in the city center would absolutely have to listen hard to those disabled voices for whom cars are a lifeline. But Ashley’s broad point stands: E-bikes could serve as a gateway through which a broader, more human-centric approach to downtown planning could be achieved. 

E-bikes are by no means a silver bullet. Whether it’s mandating affordable housing or increasing wages, many other pieces would have to fall into place for e-bikes to truly fulfill their potential as a tool for advancing equity. But they do have an important role to play—and local politics is a great place for communities to make this happen.

In fact, while federal decision makers are often beholden to an economy that prioritizes heavy industry, it’s cities and towns that have to bear the brunt of car dependency. Whether it’s road maintenance or air quality, traffic deaths or real estate lost to car parking, our local communities have a much stronger incentive to promote affordable and equitable active transportation options. That might be why, as Axios reported recently, there’s a proliferation of cities, states, and even private employers betting big on e-bike programs

To check if there are incentives available in your community, check out this North American e-bike policy tracker developed by Cameron Bennett and John MacArthur from the Transportation Research and Education Center (TREC) at Portland State University.