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Should e-bikes be included in the state’s electric vehicle rebate program?

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Irene Lutts

Quincy Resident; co-founder Quincycles, a Quincy bicycle advocacy group

Irene LuttsIrene Lutts

The newly signed state transportation bond bill includes a $1 million fund to establish an electric bicycle rebate program to help consumers purchase e-bikes, as part of the state’s incentives for electric vehicle purchases. This is welcome news but the funding is limited and not guaranteed to be spent. The state needs to invest fully in helping people switch to e-bikes — vehicles that can replace car trips, reduce household transportation costs, make our communities healthier, and mitigate climate change.

In 2005, my husband and I hoped to buy a house in Quincy. It was clear to us that if we reduced our transportation expenses — one of the largest items in any household budget — we would be better able to afford our mortgage. We began experimenting with using our car less, choosing instead to bike and use transit. With a 2-year old and expecting our second child, we made the leap and sold our car! Friends and family expressed concern: Could we easily transport two children, their gear, and all the groceries? Yes! But only on an electric-assist cargo bike with child seats.

Our e-bike gave us access to the world that transit alone couldn’t. We visited friends and attended music lessons, events at libraries, and sports practices in locations all over Quincy, Weymouth, Milton, and Braintree. We brought home a week’s worth of groceries at one go. We occasionally traveled up to 20 miles per day and continued to do so for eight years when our children finally outgrew the cargo bike.


Car ownership should not be the only option for Massachusetts residents to meet their transportation needs. Including electric bicycles in the state electric vehicle rebate program makes sense financially and environmentally. E-bikes open the world of active, climate-friendly transportation to people who might be intimidated by distance and hills, to families with children, and to people with heavier loads to carry.


Most trips that people make are under 5 miles — an easily bikeable distance with an e-bike that matches the utility of a car. Unfortunately, the cost of an e-bike, although lower than an electric car, can be significant — from $600 to $8,000 in my experience. Rebates could make all the difference for other families like mine who need help affording life here in Greater Boston.


Ryan M. Yonk

Senior Research Faculty and Director of the Public Choice and Public Policy Project at the Massachusetts-based American Institute for Economic Research

Ryan M YonkRachel Shabani

The Massachusetts program to subsidize the purchase of electric vehicles in the state reflects a desire and a commitment to reduce carbon emissions by incentivizing people to transition to zero- emission vehicles despite their higher cost. Regardless of intentions or how valuable we think this goal is, programs that hand out public subsidies quickly become a target for various interests competing for the benefit. Economists, politicians, and students of politics know this and recognize the potential costs of continually expanding who is eligible for a program.

The successful effort by advocates to authorize up to $1 million in state rebates for electric bicycle purchases as part of these programs is a textbook example.

Supporters of the rebates can tout e-bikes as an alternative to address climate change by replacing cars, and cite their capacity to carry heavier loads, transport children, and travel greater distances than traditional bicycles. Advocates can also argue that e-bikes are a viable way to jump-start commuter cycling, decrease traffic, and thus reduce carbon emissions.


Despite these claims, a 2018 survey of e-bike users by Portland State University found that only 27.7 percent of users reported a reduction in car trips as a primary reason for their purchase. A separate 2013 study found that e-bikes replaced only 11 percent of car trips among participants in an e-bike sharing program. Together these results suggest the substitution for car usage is relatively small and concentrated among a narrow group.

Given this, the e-bike rebate program would effectively transfer public funds directly to those who enjoy riding e-bikes. It moves resources from those uninterested in cycling to cycling hobbyists; from rural inhabitants to those living near cycle-friendly infrastructure; from people who commute longer distances to those who work locally; and from poorer households to those who can afford an e-bike.

The argument for e-bike rebates follows a long tradition of rent-seeking. It is an opportunity to use the public purse to lower the cost of achieving the desires of a relative few. Claiming supposed environmental benefits doesn’t change this reality. This should be viewed for what it is: a way to lower the cost of what a small group of people want by spreading that expense among all of the taxpayers of Massachusetts.

As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. To suggest a topic, please contact laidler@globe.com.


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