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What’s holding back the e-bike boom? Research, safety, and bias


Customers of the E-Bike Store in north Portland prep for a test ride.
(Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

“There’s still a belief that biking is recreational, not utilitarian.”
— John MacArthur, Portland State University

The electric bike industry is taking off in the U.S., spurred in part by the pandemic bike boom and a growing awareness about sustainability and the transportation sector’s impact on climate change. As I shared in a recent BikePortland article, my interest in e-bikes has piqued over the last year or so, and I’m now planning to be one of the hundreds of thousands of proud electric bicycle owners in the U.S. (more details on that journey coming soon!). 

But even though the data looks promising, and the media has caught wind of the enthusiasm, there are still several things holding back the e-bike tide according to local experts we talked to. First, policymakers need more hard data and research to get on board. We also need safer streets. Despite the added power, stability, and other features (like always-on lights) that can make e-bikes safer, traffic safety concerns loom large in the minds of would-be riders. And finally, some people are put-off by a lingering anti e-bike cultural stigma.

Do those things sound familiar? Remove the “e” and you see it’s a similar set of issues that have long plagued analog bikes in America.

John MacArthur, the Sustainable Transportation Program Manager at Portland State University’s Transportation Research and Education Center (TREC) — and a nationally-known e-bike expert — says that having more information about how people ride their e-bikes is crucial if we expect government to give them subsidies on par with EV cars (the lack of EV-bike subsidies in Oregon, compared to cars, is very stark). If researchers can prove that increased e-bike ridership reduces people’s vehicle miles traveled (VMT), thereby lowering their individual carbon emissions, there’s a reason for governments to incentivize buying them.

If just 15% of urban transportation miles traveled were made by e-bike instead of cars, carbon emissions could be reduced by 12%

“There’s still a belief that biking is recreational, not utilitarian,” MacArthur says. “For state and local jurisdictions to put dollars toward these programs, they want to see that there’s an intended benefit they’re empowered to meet.” 

But the electric car craze still dominates the conversation when it comes to reducing carbon emissions via transportation, proven by the ghosting of bikes and sole focus on car charging stations in the Biden Infrastructure Bill. Cars are so ingrained into the American ethos and urban design that those in the e-bike industry say it’s hard for many people to imagine being able to replace their car with a bike. 

Thanks in part to Portland’s very own Congressman Earl Blumenauer, the idea of subsidizing e-bikes has made its way into policy talks. As Blumenauer is quick to point out, wide e-bike usage has known positive environmental impacts. A study, co-written by MacArthur and PSU’s Michael McQueen says that if just 15% of urban transportation miles traveled were made by e-bike instead of cars, carbon emissions could be reduced by 12%. 

But the bikes can be pricey — an entry level model will run you at least $1000, but you can easily spend far upwards of $2000 — especially when you have to shell out all the money at once. Blumenauer’s bill has gone through some changes since it was first introduced, but as it currently stands in the federal Build Back Better bill, it would give people up to $900 in tax credits on purchases of e-bikes up to $4000, giving people a pretty significant financial incentive to buy a new set of wheels.

However, e-bikes are still being referred to by some as a “niche” element of the proposed Build Back Better package, that looks to have a pretty bumpy road to passage, so it will be important to communicate the benefits of e-bike ridership that researchers have found and continue funding more research on the topic.

“There’s a huge need for research, because there are still a lot of questions,” MacArthur shared with us in an interview this week. In a November 22nd article in Bicycle Retailer & Industry News, MacArthur said, “We just don’t know very much. The numbers we have are not very accurate.” He points to a particular gap in sales data for the vast amount of e-bike purchases made during the pandemic.

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Even if there was a subsidy, there are other problems to address when it comes to encouraging e-bike ridership.

Nick Wood, the marketing manager at Portland-based e-mobility company Vvolt, says that he thinks improving cycling infrastructure so people feel safe is the top way to get people on e-bikes.

“Without on-street safety as a significant priority, I don’t think we’ll be able to accelerate the everyday transportation use of e-bikes in a meaningful way. When we talk about what it’s going to take to make e-bikes appropriately popular, that’s probably the biggest thing,” Wood says. “We’re super excited about subsidies and public charging infrastructure from the state or the feds, but those things are only so effective in the absence of properly safe and connected infrastructure.”

“There has to be a pretty big sea change in order to make people feel comfortable.”
— Eva Frazier

“So many people could be riding a bike instead of driving a car,” says Eva Frazier, co-owner of Portland bike shop Clever Cycles. But Frazier acknowledges since cities are primarily designed for cars, there are valid reasons for people to feel anxious about making the switch over to bikes of any kind. “There has to be a pretty big sea change in order to make people feel comfortable,” she says.

Frazier thinks de-incentivizing driving — or pointing out how it is often faster to ride a bike than sit in rush-hour traffic — can give people the push they need to get on an e-bike. 

To MacArthur, more funding for research on how people use e-bikes — whether they’re just for weekend fun or to replace the family car — is crucial.  

Even if we prove that e-bikes will take a chunk out of greenhouse gas emissions and even if we make our cities more welcoming to them, some advocates say it’s crucial that people abandon any competitive or haughty mindset that treats analog bikes as superior to e-bikes.

“You just have to get over your prejudices.”
— Nick Wood, Vvolt

“We need to understand that a bike is to move people, and it’s about that movement,” MacArthur says. “People have to stop thinking about themselves. Bicycling is not a sport, it’s not a race, it’s just movement of yourself around town.” 

Nick Wood, the marketing manager at Portland-based e-mobility company Vvolt, says that if people are serious about getting cars off the streets, they’ll embrace all forms of active transit. 

“At the end of the day, the question is: do you want more people to drive or would you rather have more people engaging in some form of active transportation? If you’d like to see more people in automobiles, I’d like to hear your solutions for solving some of society’s biggest problems,” Wood says. “You just have to get over your prejudices.”

Despite these factors holding back e-bike ridership and the research limitations he’s bumped into, MacArthur says that he doesn’t think the e-bike boom is a fad. The question is how sticky is this,” MacArthur says. “There are lots of different factors to consider, but I think it’s here to stay.”