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E-Bikes Are Putting a Dent in Denver's Vehicle Miles Traveled

Cash incentives to be used toward the purchase of an electric bike in Denver are helping to reduce annual car trips and improve regional mobility options. Those watching the space hope the momentum will build even further.

Waist-down shot of a person riding an e-bike.
Electric bicycles in Denver are replacing an estimated 100,000 vehicle miles per week, and are doing their part to position transportation policy toward expanding infrastructure and other opportunities for micromobility.

“It’s a small number, in the grand scheme of things. But I think it’s an amazing step in the right direction as we look for transportation solutions that improve mobility, reduce vehicle miles traveled and reduce emissions,” said Mike Salisbury, transportation energy lead for the city and county of Denver.

Salisbury was speaking on a panel focusing on the growth of e-bikes as a meaningful transportation option for urban mobility at the recent Forth Roadmap conference in Portland.

“Finally I can say, is 2023 the year of the e-bike?” asked John MacArthur, sustainable transportation program manager at Portland State University, in some of his remarks as moderator of the panel. “As we think about emerging modes, emerging tech — kind of getting over that early adopter phase — are we about to jump that chasm?”

Electric bikes entered the U.S. market in a meaningful way about five years ago. Like all bike sales, interest surged during the COVID-19 pandemic, and it was largely considered the fastest-selling electric vehicle. Today, about 28 percent of bike-share trips are made on an e-bike, said MacArthur. “I personally believe that if you have a bike-share system, it should all be electric.”

“You will get more people riding your bikes, and riding more often,” he added.

Last year, on Earth Day, Denver launched a small e-bike incentive program that would give residents a cash voucher to use at local bike shops to place toward the purchase of an e-bike. The city anticipated a few hundred residents may show interest. A mere $300,000 was put into the program.

“We launched on a Friday. Monday morning we came into the office and found out that over 1,000 people, over the weekend, had already applied for the program,” Salisbury recalled.

“Right away, we realized we’d struck a nerve. We had found a program that Denver residents were really, really excited about. People wanted to take advantage of these incentives,” he added.

The city was able to cobble together money from different departments and other programs to boost funding for the incentives. By the end of 2022, the program had dispersed some 4,700 vouchers totaling $5 million to help purchase e-bikes. Half of the vouchers went to income-qualified residents.

“What we’ve seen in our program is there’s this huge hunger, and interest, and demand for this mobility option that allows people to get around, from all different income levels. Everyone was really excited about this,” said Salisbury

The vouchers come in several denominations. A standard voucher is $300, while an income-qualified voucher can total up to $1,200. For consumers eyeing an electric cargo bike, the city will offer a $200 incentive voucher.

Key to the program’s success was keeping it simple, said Salisbury, which is part of the reason the incentives do not apply to electric scooters. Also, riders tend to go farther on bikes, increasing the chances that they will replace car trips.

“We also were really careful about that ‘keep it simple’ space,” Salisbury told Government Technology in followup questions during the panel. “The more different things we introduced into the program, the more options, the more complicated it becomes.”

Another important point in the program’s success was the way the incentive was structured as a cash voucher that applies directly to the bike’s price at the point of sale. Shoppers were not burdened with paying full price and then filing paperwork later for a rebate.

“It became very clear to us those community members did not have the ability to wait for the city of Denver to reimburse them,” said Salisbury, adding that if electric bikes were going to be relevant and usable for lower-income residents, “we had to create an upfront incentive.”

Still, for e-bikes — or any form of micromobility — to attract wider ridership, the infrastructure has to be there. But the hope, say advocates, is that all of those new riders will help to create what Salisbury calls a “virtuous loop,” where people are turned into more avid cyclists and are now advocating for more bike infrastructure among their elected officials.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.