If Governments Are Going to Subsidize Electric Vehicles, Why Not E-Bikes?

©. 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.
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© Warning! Illegal in New York! /Tern Bicycles

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.