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

Irene LuttsIrene Lutts

The new state transportation bond bill includes a $1 million fund to establish an e-bike rebate program to help consumers purchase e-bikes, as part of incentives from the state for the purchase of electric vehicles. This is good news, but funding is limited and it is not guaranteed to be spent. The state must fully invest in helping people switch to e-bikes – vehicles that can replace car trips, reduce household transport costs, make our communities healthier and mitigate climate change.

In 2005 my husband and I were hoping to buy a house in Quincy. It was clear to us that if we reduced our transportation expenses – one of the biggest items in a household’s budget – we would be better able to pay our mortgage. We started trying to reduce our car use, opting instead to cycle and use public transport. With a 2 year old and expecting our second child, we took the plunge and sold our car! Friends and family expressed concern: Could we easily carry two children, their gear, and all the groceries? Yes! But only on an electrically assisted cargo bike with child seats.

Our e-bike gave us access to the world that public transit alone could not. We visited friends and attended music lessons, library events and sports practices at locations all over Quincy, Weymouth, Milton and Braintree. We brought home a week’s worth of groceries in one fell swoop. We sometimes rode up to 20 miles a day and continued to do so for eight years when our kids finally outgrew the cargo bike.

Owning a car shouldn’t be the only option for Massachusetts residents to meet their transportation needs. Including e-bikes in the National Electric Vehicle Rebate Program makes financial and environmental sense. E-bikes open up the world of active, climate-friendly transportation to people who might be intimidated by distance and hills, families with children, and people with heavier loads to carry.

Most of the journeys people make are less than 8 km, a distance easily ridable with an electric bike that corresponds to the usefulness of a car. Unfortunately, the cost of an e-bike, while less than an e-car, can be significant – anywhere from $600 to $8,000 in my experience. The discounts could make all the difference to other families like mine who need help living here in Greater Boston.


Ryan M. Yonk

Senior Research Professor and Director of the Public Choices and Public Policy Project at the American Institute for Economic Research, based in Massachusetts

Ryan M YonkRachel Chabani

Massachusetts’ program to subsidize the purchase of electric vehicles in the state reflects a desire and commitment to reduce carbon emissions by incentivizing people to switch to zero-emission vehicles despite their higher cost. Regardless of the intentions or the value we think of this objective, programs that distribute public subsidies quickly become the target of various interests competing for profit. Economists, politicians and students of politics know this and recognize the potential costs of a continued expansion of those eligible for a program.

The successful effort by advocates to allow up to $1 million in state rebates for e-bike purchases under these programs is a classic example.

Proponents of the discounts may point to e-bikes as an alternative to tackling climate change by replacing cars, and cite their ability to haul heavier loads, carry children and travel greater distances than traditional bikes. Proponents can also argue that e-bikes are a viable way to kick-start commuter cycling, reduce traffic and therefore reduce carbon emissions.

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

Given this, the e-bike rebate program would effectively transfer public funds directly to those who enjoy riding e-bikes. It shifts resources from those not interested in cycling to recreational cyclists; from rural dwellers to those living close to cycling-friendly infrastructure; from people who commute longer distances to those who work locally; and from the poorest households to those who can afford an e-bike.

The case for e-bike discounts is part of a long tradition of rent-seeking. This is an opportunity to use public funds to reduce the cost of fulfilling the wishes of the few. Claiming supposed environmental benefits does not change this reality. It should be seen for what it is: a way to reduce the cost of what a small group of people want by spreading that expense among all Massachusetts taxpayers.

As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. To suggest a topic, please contact [email protected].

This is not a scientific investigation. Please vote only once.

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