E-bike incentives in Utah could help improve air quality

Denver has done it, but will Mayor Mendenhall’s budget pitch for electric bike incentives put more people on two wheels?

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

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Despite Hannah Sieben’s love of bicycling, she rarely commuted on two wheels around Denver.

But that changed when the 28-year-old received a rebate from the city covering the cost of a $1,700 Rad Power cargo electric bicycle. She only had to cover the sales tax — which amounted to roughly $67.

Sieben rarely uses her car now that she can hop on her bike to get to the public library or grocery store sweat-free. When she goes to a restaurant, a friend can hop on the back.

She is one of more than 5,000 Denver residents who redeemed an e-bike voucher since the program launched in April 2022.

And now Salt Lake City is considering an e-bike rebate of its own — Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s 2024 budget request includes $230,000 for an air quality incentives program that could, in part, provide rebates for electric lawn care equipment, air purifiers or filters and electric bikes. This would build on an existing lawnmower equipment trade-in program the city already partners with the state on.

However, e-bike incentives are not beloved by all.

At the federal level, Congress is considering the E-Bike Act, which would provide a tax credit for 30% of an e-bike cost. Utah Sen. Mitt Romney earlier this year pushed back against subsidies for e-bikes, telling Insider in April “I’m not going to spend money on buying e-bikes for people like me who have bought them — they’re expensive.” The senator continued, “Removing automobile lanes to put in bike lanes is, in my opinion, the height of stupidity. It means more cars backing up, creating more emissions.”

Denver’s program is tiered and provides certain income-qualifying residents like Sieben with larger rebates. “That seems like a lot of money for the government to be giving to people,” Sieben said, “but I never would have purchased an e-bike if I didn’t have that help, and I ride my e-bike almost every day.”

As cities look to mitigate the impacts of climate change and improve air quality, e-bike rebates could help people reduce the number of trips they take in a car. The programs are gaining in popularity: A 2022 report published by the Transportation Research and Education Center at Portland State University identified 53 “active, pilot, or closed” e-bike incentive programs across the U.S. and Canada — from Austin, Texas to the state of Vermont.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A cyclist pedals through Liberty Park in Salt Lake City on an e-bike on Monday, May 22, 2023.

“We’re not at all able, at least anytime soon, probably to do something on the scale of say what Denver does,” said Sophia Nicholas, Salt Lake City’s sustainability department deputy director. “But we would like to start looking at what we could do, in an equitable manner, to increase the adoption and access to electric bikes.”

Why e-bikes?

Jenn Oxborrow, executive director of Bike Utah, has about 12 “regular” bicycles in her garage. But her cargo e-bike is her go-to when she takes trips to Costco or Home Depot. She can also easily transport her “big 80-pound lunk of a dog in the basket.”

Hills and tricky intersections are a breeze with a little throttle or pedal assist.

About 15 years ago Oxborrow broke her hip. But even when she’s having a “bad leg day” she can still ride uphill and for longer periods of time with the help of an e-bike.

The potential for e-bikes to expand access to those with health limitations or disabilities is another reason to encourage and support their adoption, proponents like Oxborrow say.

At Guthrie Bicycle in Salt Lake City’s Sugar House neighborhood, e-bikes make up 30% of the total bikes sold, but roughly 50% of bike sales dollars because of their slightly higher price tag, said Preston Jacobsen, co-owner of the locally owned shop.

The pandemic bike boom has slowed, but not for e-bikes, Jacobsen said. E-bikes have brought “non-cyclists into a cycling community,” he said. “It allows them to get on a bike, or stay riding a lot longer.”

E-bikes of all sorts — from commuter to road to mountain — are now a stable part of the shop’s inventory. “We do a ton of commuter-focused urban bikes,” Jacobsen said. “That category just continues to grow.”

(Bike Utah) Jenn Oxborrow, executive director of Bike Utah.

“E-bikes are a great mobility tool because they allow people to replace shorter-distance car trips with a bike trip,” said Nicholas, with Salt Lake City. “Our expectation is that it will reduce some of the reliance on single occupancy vehicle trips, as well as just provide a more affordable option for people who might not be able to buy a car.”

A past popular Utah e-bike rebate program

In 2018 the University of Utah launched an electric bike rebate program in hopes of helping improve the valley’s notoriously bad air.

“We know our urban air pollution comes from tailpipe emissions,” said Ginger Cannon, the U.’s active transportation manager, “and we wanted those emissions to be cut back.”

Anyone affiliated — however loosely — with the institution could take advantage of a 10% to 25% discount. “We knew that if we could help people get to the university in a more green way, and to clear the air, then we’d be promoting sustainability, of course,” Cannon said.

Over just three months, more than 150 e-bikes were purchased at local bike shops through the program.

Cannon, who relies on an e-bike for her daily commute, notes that it’s also fun. “It’s just a wonderful way to get around,” she said. She can arrive at meetings sweat-free but still get a little endorphin boost.

“We have had a lot of requests to revive that program because it was so popular,” Cannon said. So far, no money has been set aside to do so again.

Oxborrow, of Bike Utah, said there’s been some interest in launching a statewide rebate program.

“We’re thinking strategically about how to get our state Legislature to invest in this as well,” Oxborrow said. However, the request to fund an e-bike rebate program on the state level didn’t make the final cut. “There wasn’t a negative response,” Oxborrow said, but the list of funding priorities is long.

“It’s something we need to keep working on,” said Rep. Andrew Stoddard, D-Sandy, the initiative’s sponsor.

Stoddard is the father of four and bike commuting isn’t currently on the table for him, but said “for a lot of people, that’d be a great way to commute, but, the price is a huge barrier.”

“We know that vehicles are the number one polluter,” Stoddard said, “so if we can help get cars off the road, let’s do it.”

Heavy batteries & biking barriers

Rebates might convince more people to ride electric, but are our streets ready for that revolution?

Apartment dwellers without weight-lifting regimes might struggle to lug a 50-pound bike up four flights of stairs. The idea of leaving a $1,500 bicycle locked up outside is also not particularly appealing.

And will the dangers of sharing the road with vehicles give those would-be-cyclists pause?

Salt Lake City’s roads, populated with speeding drivers checking their phones while turning right into a crosswalk, frighten even the most experienced and dedicated cyclists.

“Safety is a real barrier,” Oxborrow said. “We have really big wide roads in Utah, and drivers tend to drive faster the bigger the road is.”

The city is promising bike lanes and traffic calming measures, but streets like 700 East (under the purview of the Utah Department of Transportation) remain difficult to navigate by foot or pedal.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Electric bikes at Guthrie Bicycle in Salt Lake City on Friday, May 19, 2023.

Skeptics of the e-bike rebate program in Denver pointed to the city’s lack of infrastructure, explained Chelsea Warren, who works in Denver’s Office of Climate Action, Sustainability and Resiliency, as a reason to wait. “There’s kind of this chicken or egg conversation,” Warren said.

“We don’t get to design our city from scratch,” Warren said, but “we’re improving it.”

And as more people buy e-bikes through Denver’s rebate program, they seem to be riding more, even without Norwegian levels of infrastructure in place.

“From that first survey we did, which was just under 1000 people, our vehicle miles being replaced [were] 100,000 every single week,” Warren said.

And unlike other consumer-focused climate initiatives including solar panel or electric vehicle rebates — e-bikes are a boon for more than just the middle class or wealthy homeowners.

“This isn’t just people who are passionate about climate action,” Warren said. “These are people who want a more affordable way to get to work, these are people who want to go down to one car because cars are very expensive.”

What would an SLC e-bike rebate look like?

Like Denver’s program, Mendenhall envisions the air quality incentives initiative to be egalitarian.

“This would apply to both renters and homeowners alike,” she said. Renters could take advantage of the e-bike rebate, or “work with their landlords to switch out the air filters in the HVAC system for a high quality HEPA filter.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall prepares for her bike ride from the Glendale neighborhood to City Hall downtown, on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022.

The proposed budget requests $230,000 for the air quality incentives program — which would in part go toward a full-time air quality program coordinator. The air quality incentive program “would likely include some kind of an e-bike rebate, as well as a landscaping equipment exchange, as well as indoor air quality tools like air purifiers, air filters, etc.”

What gets approved in the final budget is still on the table at the Salt Lake City Council, which has final approval power over the mayor’s recommended budget. Mendenhall said that, so far, the public response has been positive.

“These would be improvements that would be available to all Salt Lakers, and I’m excited by that,” Mendenhall said.

Salt Lake City residents can read the entire proposed Mayor’s budget here and attend the second public hearing on Tuesday, June 6 at 7 p.m., which is part of the regular council meeting.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mark Kennedy, owner of Saturday Cycles in Salt Lake City, talks about the cargo capabilities of the Yuba Spicy Curry e-bike built with a Bosch motor on Monday, May 22, 2023. The city is considering an e-bike rebate in an effort to put more people on two wheels.

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