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E-bikes could be a more affordable way to reduce emissions

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Electric cars are seen as one way for Americans to reduce emissions. But these days, the average price of a new electric car is more than $60,000, according to Kelley Blue Book. Is there a more affordable way to ditch your fossil-fueled car? NPR's Adam Bearne has been trying to find out if electric bikes might be a better option.

ADAM BEARNE, BYLINE: Lelac Almagor is on a mission to get out of the car.

LELAC ALMAGOR: I just really hate driving. The sitting and the being stuck and the waiting is just really not for me.

BEARNE: Public transportation here in Washington, D.C., used to be an option. But she's discovered its limitations now she has children.

ALMAGOR: I used to metro a lot and take the bus a lot. And then when I had kids, it just became a little bit too complicated to get to where we were going with the kids and the stuff that the kids have. It wasn't working well for me. I wasn't happy.

BEARNE: She's thought about commuting on a regular bike, but...

ALMAGOR: I think in my 20s was a repeatedly failed bike commuter. I'm just really not that spandex cyclist type of person. That's just really not me. I really hate biking up hills.

BEARNE: Then she tried out an electric bike. E-bikes use a battery and an electric motor to boost the rider's input, or the motor can just totally take over.

ALMAGOR: It was one of those orange JUMP bikes that they had around for a while. And I remember it was just amazing. I was going down to meet a friend at Eastern Market, which is further than I would typically be able to walk. And I got on the bike, and I just - I got there so quickly, and it was so much freaking fun. Like, I just - I felt like a child.

BEARNE: But to carry her kids and all their stuff, she needed something bigger than the average e-bike. So she settled on an e-cargo bike. It's actually a trike with two wheels at the front, one at the back and a big box in front of the rider that's got plenty of room for passengers. Almagor can carry her entire family in this bike. She proved it by taking me along for a ride with her 3-year-old son, Oren, strapped in next to me and her infant daughter, Tamar, snugly secured in a car seat, clutching a tambourine. For Almagor, this is way better than driving.

ALMAGOR: All of those minutes that we would normally be getting to school, running errands, getting to a friend's house, that time that used to be kind of dead time in my schedule - it still takes us time to get places, but now that's time that we're spending together. You know, we're talking. We're laughing. We're seeing things. I'm having fun. They're having fun.

BEARNE: Oren certainly enjoys being in the bike, especially the hills.

OREN: I like the up and down and up and down.

BEARNE: Preventing emissions isn't Almagor's main motivation, but she says it's an added bonus of the e-bike.

ALMAGOR: I do think that I felt guilty every single time I used the car, partly because of my concern about fossil fuels and my family's carbon footprint and whatever. But, like, if there hadn't been a way to fix it that was convenient and joyful, we would probably still be driving and feeling guilty about it.

BEARNE: The Bureau of Transportation Statistics found that in 2021, 52% of all trips were three miles or less. That's the kind of distance that most people can manage on an e-bike. That's why the city of Denver has made e-bikes a priority. Here's Grace Troccolo Rink, Denver's chief climate officer.

GRACE TROCCOLO RINK: We have a fairly car-dependent culture, so there's a fairly high rate of single-occupancy vehicle trips. And transportation is the No. 2 source of our greenhouse gas emissions but No. 1 in air pollution.

BEARNE: Denver residents can get $400 towards an e-bike or 1,200 if they are low income. If they want an e-cargo bike, something like the kind Almagor has, they can get an extra $500 on top of that. And that amount is right around the price of an entry-level e-bike, which are more expensive than most regular bikes. The program started last spring and proved so popular that all of the vouchers budgeted for last year were quickly snapped up. A new round of funding is being made available early this year, and Troccolo Rink says the city's already seeing results. They surveyed the people who received the money toward e-bikes.

TROCCOLO RINK: On average, the people who have responded are saying that they are biking 26.2 miles overall per week, and they're replacing 3.4 car trips for an average of 21.6 miles of replaced car trips per week. I think that's a pretty good result.

BEARNE: It's these numbers that inspire bike advocates to push for incentives for e-bikes from the federal government - advocates like Noa Banayan. She's with a group called PeopleForBikes. I met her for a ride from the White House to the U.S. Capitol, this time riding our own e-bikes. We rode in perhaps one of the country's most iconic bike lanes right in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue, headed straight toward the Capitol building.

NOA BANAYAN: It's pretty spectacular. I've probably been biking on here, like, five, six years now, and it still doesn't quite get old.

BEARNE: For Banayan, riding an e-bike turns Capitol Hill into, well, Capitol flat. But to make e-bikes more than an occasional trend and more of a transformation for society, she says federal incentives are needed.

BANAYAN: It's about giving people choice in how they move. And if we're giving people an incentive to choose cars, electric vehicles, and not necessarily an electric bicycle, then we're sort of locking our transportation system into the way that it has been, which is really car-dominated. We view electric bicycles as this incredible opportunity to replace short car trips.

BEARNE: Why shouldn't there be the same kind of tax credits for e-bikes that there are for electric cars? she says.

BANAYAN: Every community should be thinking about, what are the fastest ways they can cut their emissions? It's not building out necessarily an electric-vehicle charging network that'll be live in five, 10 years. It's giving people an e-bike and giving them a safe place to ride it.

BEARNE: But e-bikes aren't as useful outside urban areas, points out Skyler McKinley of AAA. He's based in Denver.

SKYLER MCKINLEY: It is incredibly expensive across America to live in cities right now. Folks increasingly are not living in urban centers. They are further flung, where they might have to drive a significant amount of time to get to, say, the grocery store. In that case, they're probably going to go with an internal combustion engine over an e-bike.

BEARNE: But Lelac Almagor does have the option to do plenty of commuting on a bike with a boost.

ALMAGOR: Between me and my husband, we put 12,000 miles on our bikes in the last couple years. When I think about that number, what it means the most to me is how many minutes I spent having fun with my kids outside.

BEARNE: Adam Bearne, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adam Bearne
Adam Bearne is an editor for Morning Edition who joined the team in August 2022.