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E-Bikes Raise New Debates Around Infrastructure and Equity

Electric bikes are becoming a popular alternative to short- and medium-range trips that would normally have been traveled by car. But experts warn the vehicles are only as good as the infrastructure they travel, which is often lacking in low-income neighborhoods.

Electric bikes may be the latest craze among micromobility evangelists, but the increasingly popular vehicles do little for riders when it comes to addressing the issues of transportation equity, or make up for missing infrastructure.

“So many of the neighborhoods in the city of Atlanta do not have safe infrastructure. All of the infrastructure is very auto-oriented, with high speeds, multi-lane roads going through communities. So while e-bikes can be great to connect to transit, to connect to work, some communities don’t have the basic infrastructure to get them from Point A to Point B in a safe way,” said Ashley Finch, shared micromobility coordinator with the Department of Transportation in Atlanta. Finch was part of a Jan. 25 panel, organized by CoMotion LIVE, to discuss micromobility.

At the center of the discussion was the concept of incentives paid to consumers to purchase an e-bike, and whether this is the right direction for public policy to move toward, or whether cities should prioritize the development of infrastructure, particularly in those areas that are often the last to receive it: economically depressed areas or low-density, car-focused communities.

“We need to make sure our incentives are equitable. Because if we’re just increasing ridership in an area that already has wide adoption and ridership, and higher incomes, is that really an equitable program, and is that adding more access?” Finch offered.

Some cities have already begun experimenting with e-bike incentives. Denver has a much-talked-about program that puts cash in the hands of consumers to be used to purchase an electric bike. Last year, some 4,700 people bought e-bikes via the rebate program, said Grace Rink, executive director of the Office of Climate Action, Sustainability and Resiliency in the city and county of Denver.

The city offers two tiers of rebates: $300 as a standard rebate, and $1,200 for income-qualified applicants. Last year, the rebate recipients were almost evenly split between the standard rebate and the income-qualified rebate.

“The standard rebate helps get people off the fence. It doesn’t make an e-bike more affordable, but it gives people that nudge to say, 'I’ve been thinking about it, and because I get this rebate, I’m going to go and I’m going to actually take a plunge and by this bike,'” said Rink speaking at last week’s Micromobility World Conference.

“But for the income-qualified folks, it really does have to be an affordable purchase. And we really want to keep the out-of-pocket costs for those customers anywhere form zero to maybe $300, out of pocket,” she added.

The rebate program was so popular, the funding for the project — provided by sales tax collections — quickly dried up.

The project will continue this year, with a limited number of rebate vouchers available every other month, according to the city’s website.

The project was seen as a small piece of the effort to get people out of their cars and onto other modes like bikes and transit. The majority of the trips in Denver are less than five miles, said Rink.

“So these are trips that are easily achievable with an e-bike,” she added.

“As cities are creating bike infrastructure, like regular bike lanes, protected bike lanes, more safe bike parking infrastructure, there’s going to be a growing demand for the bikes. And we want people to be able to travel farther, a little faster, and more conveniently,” said Rink.

If the infrastructure isn’t quite there yet, cities should look to “safe routes” — those streets that tend to have less traffic and generally end up being the preferred route of cyclists — as bike throughways to promote.

“Bike infrastructure is important,” said Rink. “But there are a lot of safe routes that people can take that don’t have bike infrastructure on them, that could be that easy introduction.”
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.