April 15, 2024

At 11 a.m. on the last Wednesday of February, Denver has its first application window of the year e-bike rebate program, which offers residents upfront rebates of $300 to $1,400 for a battery-powered bike. Within three minutes, all the vouchers for low and moderate income applicants were claimed. By 11:08 am the discounts for everyone else were also gone, and the portal closed.

Even in its third year, Denver’s ambitious campaign to get residents to trade some of their rides for rides remains as popular as ever. “It’s exciting that people are really interested in this technology,” Mike Salisbury, the city’s transportation energy leader, told Grist. “Every trip we can convert to an e-bike will be a huge climate victory.”

Transportation is one of the largest sources, if not the largest source, of a city’s carbon emissions. About cut that footprintofficials often resort to expensive, intensive transit projects and build out electric vehicle infrastructure. Denver does those things, but also supports smaller forms of mobility. It has spent more than $7.5 million on e-bike vouchers in just two years, supporting the purchase of nearly 8,000 of the battery-powered bikes, which can travel up to 28 mph, climb hills and carry passengers or cargo .

“We’re just very bullish on e-bikes,” Salisbury said. “They have this huge potential to replace vehicle trips.”

The coupons save about 170,000 miles in car trips per week and about 3,300 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually, according to the city. Its Office of Climate Action, Sustainability and Resilience calls it “one of the most effective climate strategies the City and County of Denver has deployed to date.”

There are about 160 of these incentive programs across the US and Canada, and while Denver wasn’t the first to implement one, the size and success of its venture has drawn the attention of other governments and utilities. Congress also takes note: Jimmy Panetta, representative of California, has the federal Electric Bicycle Incentive Kickstart for the Environment Act, or E-BIKE Actwhich last year would offer a 30 percent federal tax credit for e-bike purchases.

Funded by a voter-approved $40 million Climate Protection Fundwhich is a portion of the city’s sales tax decarbonisation initiatives, the program offers income-based rebates that can be redeemed at designated bike shops. Providing the discount at the registry helps those who would otherwise be unable to afford the upfront cost, which usually starts around $1,200 and can run into several thousand dollars.

Residents earning less than 60 percent of the area’s median income of about $52,000 can get $1,200 for a standard e-bike and $1,400 for a cargo model (useful for carrying gear, making deliveries or transporting children). Moderate income recipients receive between $700 or $900, and everyone else can get $300 or $500. Online applications open several times each year and vouchers are offered on a first-come, first-served basis.

bike shop
Denver residents redeem the $300 to $1,400 rebates directly at designated bike shops, alleviating the need for a hefty down payment. Hyoung Chang / The Denver Post via Getty Images

The goal is to reduce emissions from the transportation sector, Denver’s second largest contributor of greenhouse gases, by directing short vehicle trips. According to Salisbury, 44 percent of residents’ trips are less than 5 miles and most are under 10, feasible distances to travel on an e-bike.

“E-bikes are not going to replace every single ride for every single person,” he said. “But there is this great potential to replace, especially in an urban environment, shorter distance journeys that someone makes alone. Or they can use an e-cargo bike to take their children to school.”

That’s one of the many ways Jeff Gonzales, a marketing professional and father who lives near the University of Denver, uses the power-assisted bike he bought two years ago with the help of a gift card.

At the time, Gonzales was driving a custom Toyota Tacoma pickup truck. “It was great, but it was a gas guzzler,” he told Grist. Gas was so expensive that he and his wife tried to limit their driving as much as possible. But their two toddlers have become too heavy to tow with the family’s bike trailer, affectionately called “the wagon”. When an employee at his local bike shop mentioned the rebates for power-assisted bikes, he decided to take one for a test ride.

“I was like, ‘That’s pretty cool,’ and then I asked them, ‘Can I hook the cart behind it?’ They said, ‘Absolutely.’” Gonzales sold his truck, applied for a voucher and bought the bike. He started driving it to the grocery store, taking the kids to school, and even making the 24-mile round trip to his office twice a week.

“That first summer we had it, I think there were times we didn’t get in the car for about two weeks at a time,” he said.

a man rides an e-bike with an attached trailer
After selling his van, Jeff Gonzales started using an e-bike to take his children to school and commute to work.
Courtesy of the City of Denver / Jeff Gonzales

In a 2023 survey of voucher recipients, 43 percent of respondents cited commuting as their primary reason for getting an e-bike, and 84 percent said the machines replaced at least one vehicle trip per week. The city estimates that recipients log a weekly average of 21 miles in their cars.

Commuting on two wheels often allows riders to avoid traffic or take more direct routes than those offered by public transportation. “People are sharing feedback with us about how it’s enabled them to get to work much faster, easier, at a much lower cost, without having to make two or three transit transfers to get to a location come,” Salisbury said.

Gonzales said he often finds biking to work faster, but even when the ride doesn’t save time, it’s more fun. “It’s bad to sit in traffic,” he said. “I’d rather move on a bike, and if I get tired I can increase the power level, but I’m still moving.”

The clean energy nonprofit Rocky Mountain Institute, or RMI, found that if the nation’s 10 most populous cities shifted a quarter of all short vehicle trips to e-bike trips, they could save 4.2 million barrels of oil and 1.8 million metric tons of CO2 in one year. This is the equivalent of taking four natural gas plants offline. As an added bonus, those riders would also save a combined total of $91 million per month in avoided fuel and vehicle maintenance costs, according to RMI.

But a recent study of Valdosta State University and Portland State University question the cost-effectiveness of achieving greenhouse gas emissions this way. “Even when e-bike incentive programs are designed cost-effectively,” the authors concluded, “the cost per ton of CO2 reduced still exceeds that of alternative or reasonable social costs of GHG emissions.” A discount program can still be beneficial, the study concludes, but may need to be justified by its additional benefits, such as promoting exercise and easing traffic congestion.

Salisbury said the report’s criticisms overlook how cities should tackle emissions in several ways. “There are a lot of other things the city is working on, like building rapid transit and other infrastructure, but it’s taking a long time,” he said. “If we want to see reductions as soon as possible, we need to immediately look at programs that can contribute to this.”

He also pointed out that increasing access to e-bikes is specifically aimed at one of the city’s most difficult sectors to decarbonise. “Yes, it’s cheaper to invest in a solar system, but it’s not going to do anything for transport emissions.”

That’s not to say that getting residents to trade four wheels for two is as simple as handing out a voucher. E-bikes require infrastructure, including bike lanes that can accommodate both motorized and analog riders, as well as places to charge and safely store bikes.

In the past five years, the city has added 137 miles “high-comfort” cycle lanes. Last month it had the Denver Mobility Incentive Programoffers grants to nonprofits and other organizations to install bike storage lockers, plug-in locations, and even set up e-bike libraries where residents can borrow free rides.

“It’s all part of an ecosystem,” Salisbury said. “Putting 8,000 e-bikes on the road would be much less effective if we didn’t have that co-developed infrastructure.”

Gonzales uses that infrastructure when he has to cut through busy downtown Denver to reach his office. “About 90 percent of the time I’m on protected bike lanes,” he said. “It makes me feel a lot more comfortable driving 12 miles across town.”

bike lanes denver
As part of its strategy to encourage bike commuting, Denver has added about 137 miles of “high-amenity” bike lanes over the past half decade.
Hyoung Chang / The Denver Post via Getty Images

The city also had to grapple with how to ensure that all residents could access the program. While more than 44 percent of the vouchers went to low-income applicants, the first-come, first-served application process has been criticized for favoring people with the time and computer access to apply once the portal opens. And so far, the racial demographics of the recipients have not proven to reflect the city’s population. In 2023, only 8 percent of survey respondents were Latino and 3 percent were black, while Denver’s population 29 percent Latino and nearly 9 percent Black. Despite offering up to $1,400 for customizable bikes, the program has only distributed about 20 so far.

In response, Denver worked with community-based organizations to send rebates directly to people who might not know about them or apply for them. It plans to distribute 600 vouchers through such groups this year.

The people who have the least access to the program may also be the ones who will use it the most. Survey results indicated that applicants who received vouchers through community organizations replaced 80 percent more vehicle miles than standard voucher recipients.

It’s also the first year that Denver will offer a specific rebate amount for moderate-income applicants, an effort to address the “missing middle” of people who earn closer to the city’s median income but a little more need help to afford a ride.

What the city will continue to struggle with this year is a demand for all levels of vouchers that far outstrips the supply. The next round of applications will open on April 30.

One of those applications may come from the Gonzales family. With a third baby now in tow, they’re thinking about getting a second power-assisted bike to transport the whole family. “When the little guy gets bigger, we’ll probably get another one,” says Gonzales, especially if the city continues to offer vouchers. “It’s not the cheapest thing in the world, so the discount program definitely helps.”

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