If you’ve read any of my electric bike reviews here on WIRED (which are almost universally raves) then it will not surprise you to learn that my life changed for the better, seven months ago, when I bought my own electric cargo bike.
My kids go to school a half-mile from our house in Portland, Oregon. Even in the foulest weather, I speed over at pickup time on my Tern GSD, roll past cars slowly looking for parking, grab my kids at the door, and am back home in 10 minutes. The convenience and exercise have helped me maintain my sanity in a time when not much else seemed to be working for me.
I am not alone. Industry experts estimate that in 2020, around a half-million Americans also bought ebikes, outpacing the sales of electric cars at a rate of two to one. At this year’s CES, exhibitors like Totem and Giant showed off brand new bikes, while others like Bosch, Tern, and Carla Cargo showed off new ebike innovations like integrated software and heavy-duty electric trailers small businesses can use to make deliveries.
That makes it only more frustrating that the Build Back Better Act—which was recently passed by the US House of Representatives and is currently awaiting action in the US Senate—puts such weirdly specific restrictions on tax credits for electric bikes. If you want to get a tax credit for your electric bike, you can claim a 30 percent credit over five years for up to $3,000 on a new bike, which is a total credit of $900. This tax credit only applies to bikes that cost $4,000 or less. Of course, many ebikes—especially those built for carrying children and groceries—are far more expensive than that. It also renders ineligible anyone with a modified gross income greater than $75,000, or $150,000 for couples filing jointly.
These stipulations are in stark contrast to the huge rebates for electric cars, which offer a straightforward $7,500 tax credit for a plug-in car, as well as up to $500 if the vehicle’s battery is made in the United States and an additional $4,500 credit if the vehicle is made with union labor. These rebates apply to vans and sport utility vehicles up to $80,000. Sedans that cost up to $55,000 are eligible.
It’s great that the bill has gotten this far. Still, a $900 tax credit for an ebike is a pittance compared to thousands of dollars you get from the government for buying an electric car. As a cyclist, this feels frustrating and short-sighted. In order to fix the climate crisis, we must confront our car addiction rather than feed it. We have to give ebikes, and the bike industry as a whole, the same wholehearted support that we give to cars.
Under the provisions of the proposed legislation, my own electric bike would not qualify for a tax rebate. My Tern GSD S00 retails for $6,499. I got lucky and was able to find a used demo bike for cheaper, but the price was still above the bill’s $4,000 eligibility cut off.
However, I was willing to pay that much for a bike that meets my specific needs and helps secure my children’s safety. As a small woman, I find it essential to have a small bike that I can lift and maneuver easily. Tern’s bikes are compact enough for me to manage. Also, Tern’s ebikes are powered by Bosch motors, and Bosch’s systems are among the few electric bike drivetrains that are UL-certified for safety and fire hazards. Additionally, Tern’s bikes are EFBE-tested for stress and fatigue. Most ebikes under the $4,000 mark don't have these safety certifications, but to me, they are essential. They ensure that my pedals won’t break or fall off when I’m going 20 mph, and that my bike won’t arc on me or start a fire in my garage.
Parents and kids aren’t the only people who need safe, reliable options for bikes that can handle a heavy load. “There’s a huge trend towards freight delivery,” says Claudia Wasko, Bosch’s general manager in the Americas. “[In cities,] e-cargo bikes deliver packages about 60 percent faster than vans. Studies show they have a higher average speed and drop off about ten packages an hour, while vans drop off six packages in an hour.” Those numbers climb even higher when the packages are small.
That’s one of the reasons why Tern started Tern Business, a program that encourages small businesses to explore the company’s heavy-duty ebikes for commercial purposes like hauling and deliveries. “You can get a lot of cargo trailers and cargo bikes for the price of one electric van,” says Tern marketing manager Arleigh Greenwald.
As my colleague Aarian Marshall reported in November, the US government recently enacted a new infrastructure law (known as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act) that steps up investment in “active transportation,” with $1.44 billion each year aimed towards community projects for pedestrians, cyclists, and other non-motorized transport. It also includes a record $89.9 billion in funding for public transit, which includes $39 billion to modernize existing systems.
This is a clear indication to me that the federal government recognizes that getting people out of cars is a key component to dealing with the current climate crisis. Incentivizing people to ditch gas-powered cars in favor of electric ones (and there are some very nice electrics out there) is a laudable first step, but not if it means that we still prioritize car-first thinking.
Traffic is still traffic, whether you’re sitting in a top of the line Tesla or a 1974 Ford Bronco. Electric cars—while great!—don’t help create safe, walkable, and attractive neighborhoods. If you’re inclined to think that biking only benefits people in dense cities where shorter trips are the norm, just know that investment in cycling infrastructure also helps revitalize small towns in America by attracting young families and the businesses that serve them. Just look at Fayetteville, Arkansas; Crested Butte, Colorado; or Knoxville, Tennessee. (To check your city’s bike-friendliness, look at PeopleForBikes’s City Ratings project).
"Don’t get me wrong, electric vehicles are an improvement on the status quo,” said Peter Norton, an urban mobility researcher at the University of Virginia, when I spoke to him late last year. Norton’s book Fighting Traffic explores the social and physical transformation of the American city into a paradise for motorists.
“[EVs] are an improvement like a filter was the improvement on a cigarette,” Norton says. “What we really need to do is stop smoking. The filter doesn’t solve that problem. Similarly, an electric car doesn’t solve car dependency."
With all that in mind, it doesn’t make sense that the Build Back Better plan discourages any bike purchases, or to restrict the financial benefits of making the switch to people of only a certain income. Why are pricey cargo bikes excluded? Why is income relevant when it comes to bikes, but not cars? Why is a completely outrageous (I’m sorry, but it is) $80,000 van worth a rebate, but a $6,500 bike is not?
When wealthy people began to adopt the Tesla en masse, the “Tesla effect” popularized the electric car. Teslas weren’t just EVs; they were stylish and sporty, and changed America’s idea of what an electric car looked like—and who bought one. Likewise, I promise you: If you are an ebike skeptic, a 10-minute turn on my Tern (ha ha!) would probably change your mind. You might start to see yourself going about your day atop one. In fact, your local ebike shop probably provides test rides, and your local city bike-share program is probably electrifying its fleet soon, if it hasn’t already.
No one sits in traffic for fun, and we shouldn’t encourage it—even if those cars are electric. Not only does investing in active transportation clean the air, it makes our streets safer by freeing them of hazardous motor vehicle traffic. This in turn makes neighborhoods more desirable to live in, attracts small businesses, and increases residents’ quality of life while making them healthier. Strolling or cycling leisurely from destination to destination doesn’t have to be an activity that you reserve solely for a week of vacation every year. It can be a part of your daily life.
Besides the benefits to society at large, there are smaller blessings that you just can’t ignore. When I picked up my 4-year-old from school today, I buckled his helmet on, put him in his seat, and waited for my 6-year-old to climb on. As soon as they were settled, I swung my leg over the frame. “Go fast, Mama!” my son commanded. “It’s time to go fast!” I agreed. I stood on the pedals to whisk us all home.
CORRECTION 1/6/22 10:20 am ET: This story originally conflated the Build Back Better Act, which is currently in Congress, and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which was signed into law in November.
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