Are Salt Lake City E-Bike Discounts Making More People Ditch Their Cars?

This story is part of the Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to finding 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 around Denver on two wheels.

But that all changed when the 28-year-old received a refund from the city for the cost of a $1,700 Rad Power cargo electric bike. All she had to do was pay sales tax, which totaled about $67.

Seven rarely uses her car anymore because she can hop on her bike to get to the public library or grocery store sweat-free. If she goes to a restaurant, a friend can jump up.

She is one of more than 5,000 Denver residents who have redeemed an e-bike voucher since the program began 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 proposal earmarks $230,000 for an air quality incentive program that could offer partial rebates on electric lawn care equipment, air purifiers, etc Filters and electric bikes.

However, e-bike incentives are not popular with everyone.

At the federal level, Congress is considering the E-Bike Act, which would provide a tax credit for 30% of e-bike costs. Utah Senator Mitt Romney opposed e-bike subsidies earlier this year, telling Insiders in April, “I’m not going to spend money buying e-bikes for people like me who bought them — they are.” expensive.” The senator continued, “Removing car lanes and putting in bike lanes is, in my opinion, the height of stupidity.” That means more cars are going backwards and creating more emissions.”

Denver’s program is tiered, offering larger discounts to certain income-eligible residents, such as seven. “That seems like a lot of money for the government to give people,” said Sieben, “but I would never have bought an e-bike if I didn’t have that help, and I ride the e-bike almost every day.” Bike.” Day.”

As cities seek to mitigate the effects of climate change and improve air quality, discounts on e-bikes could help people drive less. The programs are growing in popularity: A 2022 report released by Portland State University’s Transportation Research and Education Center identified 53 “active, pilot, or closed” e-bike incentive programs across the United States and Canada — from Austin, Texas to State of Vermont.

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

“We probably won’t be able to do anything on the scale of what Denver is doing at all, at least in the foreseeable future,” said Sophia Nicholas, associate director of Salt Lake City’s sustainability department. “But we’d like to start looking at what we can do in an equitable way to increase adoption and access to electric bikes.”

Why e-bikes?

Jenn Oxborrow, CEO of Bike Utah, has about 12 “regular” bikes in her garage. But her cargo e-bike is her go-to choice for trips to Costco or Home Depot. She can also transport her “big 80 pound dog in the basket” with ease.

Hills and difficult intersections are a breeze with a little throttle or pedal assistance.

Oxborrow broke his hip about 15 years ago. But even on a “bad leg day” she can ride uphill and over longer distances with the help of an e-bike.

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

At Guthrie Bicycle in Salt Lake City’s Sugar House neighborhood, e-bikes make up 30% of all bikes sold, but about 50% of bike sales money due to their slightly higher price, said Preston Jacobsen, co-owner of the local bike shop’s own shop.

The pandemic bicycle boom has slowed, but not for e-bikes, Jacobsen said. E-bikes “brought non-cyclists into a cycling community,” he said. “It allows them to get on the bike or ride it for much longer.”

E-bikes of all kinds – from commuters to road to mountain bikes – are now an integral part of the shop inventory. “We make a lot of urban bikes for commuters,” Jacobsen said. “This category just keeps growing.”

(Bike Utah) Jenn Oxborrow, General Manager of Bike Utah.

“E-bikes are a great mobility tool because they allow people to take a bike ride instead of driving a shorter distance,” said Nicholas of Salt Lake City. “We believe this will reduce reliance on single vehicle travel and provide a more affordable option for people who may not be able to purchase a car.”

A previously popular e-bike discount program in Utah

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 that our urban air pollution comes from exhaust emissions,” said Ginger Cannon, the US active transportation manager, “and we wanted those emissions to be reduced.”

Anyone who is affiliated with the institution – even loosely – can benefit from a discount of 10 to 25%. “We knew that if we could help people get to university in a more environmentally friendly way and clean the air, we would naturally be promoting sustainability,” Cannon said.

In just three months, more than 150 e-bikes were purchased from local bike shops as part of the program.

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

“We’ve had a lot of requests to revive this program because it’s been so popular,” Cannon said. So far no money has been made available for this.

Bike Utah’s Oxborrow said it is interested in launching a statewide rebate program.

“We’re thinking strategically about how to get our state legislature to invest here as well,” Oxborrow said. However, the application to fund an e-bike discount program at state level failed. “There was no negative reaction,” Oxborrow said, but the list of funding priorities is long.

“We need to keep working on that,” said Rep. Andrew Stoddard, D-Sandy, the sponsor of the initiative.

Stoddard is a father of four and commuting by bike isn’t an option for him right now, but said: “For a lot of people it would be a great way to commute, but the price is a big barrier.”

“We know that vehicles are the biggest polluter,” Stoddard said. “So if we can help get cars off the road, then we will.”

Heavy batteries and bicycle obstacles

Discounts could convince more people to go electric, but are our roads ready for this revolution?

Apartment dwellers with no weight-lifting training might struggle to haul a 50-pound bike up four flights of stairs. The idea of ​​leaving a $1,500 bike locked outside isn’t particularly appealing either.

And will the dangers of sharing the road with vehicles make these would-be cyclists think twice?

Salt Lake City’s streets teem with speeding motorists checking their phones as they turn right at a crosswalk, terrifying even the most experienced and dedicated cyclist.

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

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

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

Skeptics of Denver’s e-bike rebate program pointed to the city’s lack of infrastructure, with Chelsea Warren, who works at the Denver Office of Climate Protection, Sustainability and Resilience, citing the reason for waiting. “It’s sort of a chicken-and-egg conversation,” Warren said.

“We can’t redesign our city from scratch,” Warren said, “but we can improve it.”

And as more people buy e-bikes through Denver’s discount program, they seem to be riding them more often, even without infrastructure in Norway.

“Since the first survey we conducted, which drew close to 1,000 responses, our vehicle miles have been replaced [were] 100,000 every week,” Warren said.

And unlike other consumer-focused climate initiatives, including rebates for solar panels or electric vehicles, e-bikes aren’t just a boon for the middle class or wealthy homeowners.

“These aren’t just people who are passionate about climate action,” Warren said. “These are people who want a cheaper way to work, these are people who want to use a car because cars are very expensive.”

What would an SLC e-bike discount look like?

Like Denver’s program, Mendenhall believes the air quality initiative is egalitarian.

“This would apply to both renters and homeowners,” she said. Renters could take advantage of the e-bike discount or “work with their rental companies to swap out the air filters in the HVAC system for a 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, September 28, 2022.

The proposed budget provides $230,000 for the Air Quality Incentive Program, part of which would benefit a full-time Air Quality Program Coordinator. The air quality incentive program “would likely include some sort of e-bike rebate, as well as a replacement of gardening and landscaping equipment, as well as indoor air quality devices like air purifiers, air filters, etc.”

What will be approved in the final budget is still on the table with the Salt Lake City Council, which has final approval authority for the mayor’s recommended budget. Mendenhall said the public response so far has been positive.

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

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

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mark Kennedy, owner of Saturday Cycles in Salt Lake City, speaks on Monday, May 22, 2023 about the charging possibilities of the Yuba Spicy Curry e-bike with Bosch motor. The city is considering an e-bike discount to get more people on two wheels.

Editor’s Note • This story is available only to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers. Thank you for supporting local journalism.

Justin Scaccy

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