Electric bikes can transform the way we live by replacing car trips, encouraging cities to improve their infrastructure, and decreasing the amount of carbon we emit into the atmosphere. But e-bikes will be transformational only if people can afford them — and as of today, most e-bikes are prohibitively expensive.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) wants to change this. The 72-year-old congressman from Portland has introduced a bill to help make e-bikes cheaper, and thus more accessible. Along with Rep. Jimmy Panetta (D-CA), Blumenauer helped author the Electric Bicycle Incentive Kickstart for the Environment (E-BIKE) Act, which would give a refundable tax credit of 30 percent on the purchase of a new e-bike.
“The bottom line here is to fully capitalize on the power of bicycles to really transform the mobility landscape for metropolitan areas,” Blumenauer told The Verge. “It’s important to have the full range [of transportation modes], and the e-bike is one that really has captured some people’s imagination and has enabled more people to participate.”
The credit, which would be capped at $1,500, is only applicable on purchases of a new e-bike that costs less than $8,000. (There are a few luxury cargo bikes that exceed that amount but not many.) All three e-bike classes would be eligible for the tax credit, but bikes with motors more powerful than 750W would not. The credit would also be fully refundable, which the congressman argues would allow lower-income individuals to claim the credit.
You can only get the tax credit once every three years as an individual or twice for a joint-return couple buying two. The bill also requires the IRS to submit a report after two years to understand the distribution of the credit by income tax bracket and adjust for equity in the future.
Blumenauer is an unsurprising advocate for this legislation. He founded Congress’ informal Bike Caucus in 1996; since then, it’s grown to over 100 members. The homepage for the Bike Caucus features the congressman in a nerdy ensemble of shorts, knee-high socks, a long-sleeved oxford and bowtie, and a bike helmet. But while he doesn’t own an e-bike himself, he does frequently commute to work on a non-electric Trek road bike.
The E-BIKE Act may seem as if it was inspired by the bike boom that emerged from the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing lockdowns, but Blumenauer said it was in the works before COVID-19 upended everything. During the lockdown, people looking for new ways to exercise or for a new way to get around that wasn’t public transportation flocked to bicycles, with sales in the US reaching record levels.
Blumenauer said he’s thrilled so many people have discovered cycling but that policy changes will be needed to ensure that people don’t ditch their two-wheeled vehicles for four-wheeled ones as soon as the pandemic begins to dissipate.
“The federal government has not done a good enough job investing in the safety, not just of cyclists but pedestrians as well,” he said. “Far disproportionate injuries and deaths by cyclists and pedestrians in large measure is the result of not having the appropriate infrastructure, having bike paths, having pedestrian access, and making streets safe for people, not just mini speedways for cars.”
The impetus for the legislation is about shifting people away from cars to more sustainable forms of transportation, Blumenauer said. A recent study found that if 15 percent of car trips were made by e-bike, carbon emissions would drop by 12 percent. Nearly 50 percent of e-bike commute trips replaced automobile commute trips, according to a recent North American survey, and a more thorough review of European studies showed that e-bike trips replaced car trips 47 to 76 percent of the time.
With Democrats in control of the House, Senate, and White House, Blumenauer expects his bill will gain enough support to pass. The shift in Washington has also influenced him to introduce a more generous version of a bike commuter bill that would make available pre-tax commuter benefits similar to those who drive or take public transportation to work. A previous version of the bill failed to get through the House Ways and Means Committee. But Blumenauer said he’s confident both bills will get a hearing this time around.
“These are things that have really ripened and taken hold,” said Blumenauer, citing the number of bike-share systems that have added e-bikes to their fleets. Those systems should be designated as mass transit, making them eligible for federal funding, he added. “We have more support from the public and more and more support in Congress.”
A smart move may be to wrap Blumenauer’s bill in with President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better infrastructure proposal, which the president hopes to address after the approval of a new COVID-19 rescue package. The Oregon Democrat said he sees the new administration as a natural ally for his bike bills: Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks openly about the need to make the roads safe for vulnerable road users, like bicyclists and pedestrians, and Biden is an avid cyclist himself.
“When is the last time you saw Donald Trump on a bike,” Blumenauer laughs.