E-bike evangelism evidently paying off

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

On Wednesday, Minnesota’s new e-bike rebate program hit a bump in the road. The massive number of Minnesotans trying to access the online portal to get a rebate caused it to crash. As of this writing, the Department of Revenue has not announced when the $2 million program, which will offer rebates of up to $1500 per applicant, will come back online.

That’s an unfortunate problem for Minnesota IT to fix, but the fact that it happened because of high demand is a positive sign for our state’s environment. It shows that Minnesotans are energized about electric bicycles, which are surging in popularity worldwide.

If you’re among those who attempted to access the rebate website, you could certainly skip the rest of this column, assuming you’re already sold on the benefits of an e-bike. But if you’re on the fence, or trying to win over a skeptic, you may find it useful to read on.

I recently purchased an e-bike of my own for a small fraction of the cost of even a well-used car. After a couple of months of riding, I can confirm that e-bikes live up to the hype, serving as highly useful vehicles that deliver benefits for health, air quality, and climate action – not to mention personal enjoyment.

Replacing car trips and helping the planet

There are countless variations of e-bikes, but virtually all models are propelled partly by a traditional pedal system and partly by an electric motor and a lithium battery. They very widely in quality and price, with some models sold for under $500 and others retailing at the cost of a modest new car. Many have cargo racks, and most have electronics that track speed and adjust the electric assist function.

I won’t name the brand of e-bike I purchased here, but I’ll share a few details: it has variable speeds, maxing out at upwards of 30 miles per hour. It has a range of 30-60 miles, depending on how fast a rider prefers to go. It has a removable battery that can be charged fairly quickly at any standard outlet. I’ve equipped it with cargo bags and an attachment that allows me to tow my one-year-old daughter in a trailer behind me, which is as adorable as it sounds.

I use the bike for commuting, for getting groceries, and for taking my daughter to daycare. These trips are a stretch for walking and are time-consuming or impossible by transit, but are a comfortable breeze with two wheels and a modest motor. So far, weather, inclines, and fatigue haven’t been issues. The only problem I’ve experienced has been difficulty finding a place to lock my bike – a systemic issue I hope to see improvement on.

That’s a lot about what an e-bike is, but it’s also useful for a prospective buyer to think about what it is not. Firstly, it’s not a car. The average internal combustion engine (ICE) passenger vehicle in the United States generates about 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide every year, and their tires are our largest source of microplastics. Multiply that by over 100 million passenger vehicles in the United States, and it’s easy to see why transportation is our toughest nut to crack in terms of climate emissions. Electric cars are part of the solution, but they have their own issues, creating added wear and tear on roads and releasing more microplastics from their tires into the environment.

E-bikes’ environmental footprint, meanwhile, is miniscule. They run on human body power supplemented by electricity, which in Minnesota was primarily generated by carbon-free sources last year. Even though they’re typically heavier than “acoustic” bikes, they’re too light to make much of a dent on roads or trails. And with small tires and much lighter braking mechanisms, their plastics footprint is miniscule.

Personal considerations

For all their benefits, e-bikes come with costs and risks, which I hope to address directly here:

I’m worried about the weather: It’s true, Minnesota is a wild weather state, but e-bikes are built for all kinds of weather. On cold days, bundling up and wearing wind protection tends to work just fine, though plowing conditions may vary. On hot days, the motor can help prevent you from breaking a sweat on your way to work. 

I can’t fit multiple passengers or the items I want to buy in an e-bike: Fair enough, but don’t sell e-bikes short: the cargo racks and motor can easily handle the weight of a grocery run. I anticipate using my current child trailer for at least a few more years to carry at least one passenger.

I’m worried about fires related to e-bike batteries: If charged or handled unsafely, lithium e-bike batteries can indeed cause fires, just like electric car batteries or gas-powered engines. But if you store and charge the battery according to the manufacturer’s instructions, you shouldn’t have a problem.

I’m not sure I’m physically capable of biking to my destinations: The electric assistance of e-bikes can help with that in a way that conventional bikes cannot, and many models are especially suited to help older riders and those with disabilities get around comfortably. A little research can help you find a model that works for your body.

The cost is too high: It’s true that e-bikes are quite a bit more expensive than non-electric bikes, though the initial cost and upkeep is far less than that of a car, which I find to be a more useful comparison. In addition, many shops offer financing, and – one hopes – Minnesota will soon relaunch its rebate portal to cover 50-75% of the cost of an e-bike for thousands of Minnesotans.

I don’t feel safe riding and/or storing a bike where I need to go: While the speed and comfortable handling of an e-bike can help with this, I can’t blame anyone for feeling unsafe – individual comfort level can widely vary. A lot of places in Minnesota are downright hostile to any form of transportation that isn’t a car, which is why MEP has long supported investments in pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure. Cities like Saint Paul are taking big steps forward, but we have a long way to go.

Minnesota should ramp up e-bike promotion

Minnesota Legislators passed the rebate program because they correctly judged that e-bikes have a positive effect on community health and climate action. Every car trip replaced by an e-bike trip means less carbon in the atmosphere, less air pollution linked to heart disease and asthma, less wear on the roads, and less vehicle traffic for everyone else to deal with. It means Minnesotans are getting heart-healthy exercise. It means fewer deadly collisions on our roads.

A $2 million program, though, should only be the start of Minnesota’s promotion efforts. Transportation is our largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, and we need to draw it down fast. Helping out Minnesotans who’d prefer to get around without a car should be one of our top priorities for climate action. With e-bikes, we get a lot of bang for our buck.

Read More: Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota’s E-Bike Fleets & Commuter Assistance Program
Check out more learning resources about safe and comfortably bicycling at Bike Anywhere

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