Many areas of the country are now providing incentives and rebates to assist consumers who want to make the switch to electric bikes. The benefits include a reduced level of emissions, noise pollution, traffic congestion, and the added health benefits associated with an active lifestyle. We recently had the opportunity to interview Cameron Bennett who plays an integral role in maintaining the E-Bike Incentive Programs of North America Tracker out of the Transportation Research and Education Center (TREC) at Portland State University.
JupiterBike: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us today, Cameron. We appreciate the work you and your colleagues have put into the E-Bike Incentive Program of North America Tracker and the other academic research you have produced as part of the Transportation Resource and Education Center at Portland State University. Can you tell us a little more about your role?
CB: I took on the project with the Transportation Resource and Education Center as part of my advanced degree here. I’ve been on the project for a little bit over a year now and have had a really great time including putting together the white paper you mentioned and the Incentive Tracker and am very excited to be working on the next step which is the stated preference survey that we are looking at.
JupiterBike: Cameron, can you explain what the genesis was for this project? How did it come to light and what were some of the reasons you needed to put this data together?
CB: So, I came to the project after the proposal phase so what I will say here is a little bit of conjecture on my part. But, from my understanding, the leader of this project that I’m working for here, John MacArthur (Sustainable Transportation Program Manager at TREC) identified that these incentive programs were, shall we say, coming into fashion for a lot of local and state level policy makers as well as at the federal level. We did see a bill matriculate around congress last year and ultimately fall out of the Build Back Better bill. But there was a recognition that e-bike incentives were here to stay and that they were a growing part of the legal picture as far as e-bikes are concerned. So, there was some desire to gain some further understanding of what works and what doesn’t when you are designing a program.
So, the first phase of this project was really just to take a hard look at what is out there and gain an understanding of what is working from anecdotal evidence and especially from the handful of programs that we could pull good information from. The second phase of the project is looking at stated preference surveys. Asking people how much money they need to change their minds to buy a bike, and then using that to infer program design details.
JupiterBike: Can you address why this is attractive to the state of Oregon, or the city of Austin, or the other communities that seem to be ahead of the curve with an understanding what the future could look like when it comes to transportation?
CB: Absolutely, sure. So, if I am, let’s say, a City Manager or a Mayor then I am looking at the bottom line, primarily. I need to understand how to balance my budget year to year. Vehicles are just an expensive thing to maintain. There’s a whole lot of money that goes into the vehicle eco-system that is not necessarily paid for by drivers. So, there’s a great incentive for cities from a financial level to encourage people to switch out of their cars for as many trips as they can. E-bikes are being recognized as something that is especially powerful in making that switch just because they take away some of the physical barriers to being able to ride a bike and they also allow a bike to do more things than it may have otherwise.
So, having that electric assist allows you to load kids onto a cargo bike and pedal them around getting them from place to place a whole lot easier than you may have been able to do without that electric motor there to help you.
For cities, there’s additional benefits, of course, from meeting their environmental goals or some of their transportation equity goals by providing this low carb and low-cost form of transportation to their constituents. And we saw some of the early incentive programs explicitly priced their incentive based off the expected carbon reductions through the lifetime of the e-bike. Burlington, Vermont, for example figured that over the lifetime of the e-bike, it would save the power district about $300 in carbon emissions tax for folks to pick up that bike and they passed on 2/3 of that savings to their constituents by giving a $200 incentive.
So, there are ways that you can explicitly go about pricing these incentives to factor in those benefits in real time while understanding the system more holistically. And this is why we are seeing larger incentive values today because I think people understand that these benefits of the e-bikes are a bit more multi-faceted so you might as well roll them into a larger package.
JupiterBike: So, there are incentives for me if I am a power company or government entity and e-bikes will benefit my bottom line. But there’s also the issue of transportation equity. Could you address that and make it understandable to those looking at this issue?
CB: Of course. Just in the way that the transportation system is set up in North America, the vast majority of people don’t have access to cheap or free transportation that meets their needs. And so often, this is seen in people who live in the suburbs – or let’s say at least a good distance from downtown – a good distance away from where they work. They can’t get from place to place without a car. And, as I mentioned before, vehicles are an inherently expensive form of transportation. They are expensive for the user, and they are expensive for the system – especially from a system maintenance perspective as well.
So, e-bikes offer an opportunity for transportation equity in that they are significantly cheaper to purchase, and significantly cheaper to operate and maintain, and are still able to cover a decent distance. Now, it’s definitely not commensurate with a car as far as distance is concerned but certainly much better than walking or traditional biking. And they offer a level of flexibility that transit systems in the United States just don’t (at this point in time in many cases). They’re able to cover, let’s say, a suburban area that may not be able to be covered by a transit service.
And so, when you can get e-bikes into the hands of people for whom transportation is a large financial burden, then you have opened doors of opportunity for them. Or at least lowered the barriers
JupiterBike: That’s a great answer. So, based on your experience thus far, do you feel like this is just the beginning of a wave that we are going to see? Do you anticipate more and more communities – more and more states… Do you see this as a trend that will be increasing year after year?
CB: Absolutely. I think this is a field in which we have seen so far that when one of your peers does something (in this realm). So, when a city of a similar size – a similar population or demographic, or geographic area puts one of these programs out, you are likely to see others step up in a similar fashion afterwards. It’s not something we have quantified necessarily, but it’s something we have seen anecdotally.
We’ve seen these programs spread from about a handful of cities here and there, to now suddenly - a handful of states here and there. And there are ongoing conversations about a federal incentive that will come eventually. And this is a similar pattern to what we have seen happen in Europe when these programs emerged. And now we’re seeing this happen on a federal level over there. And so, I do expect incentives to come through in the states here on the federal level in the near future. That is assuming that the legislature remains somewhat democratically driven.
I do see these things kind of as self-accelerating, right? Because there is a fear of missing out or a fear of seemingly being left behind from a lot of these policy directors.
And that’s what we are seeing in Oregon, right? We have seen a new program pop up similar to the one that was in Colorado (that made a huge splash in the news cycle not too long ago) and I foresee that these things will continue to happen that way.
JupiterBike: So, we are in December headed towards the end of the year. I know you are responsible for keeping the spreadsheet updated. Are there any new programs or incentives that you are seeing on your radar?
CB: Yes, so, the way that I have been managing these updates is that I’ve got Google alerts coming in for all the news and I keep them in a little tab folder on my desktop here and I am able to update from that tab folder. And I will tell you right now that I’ve got about a dozen news articles open that I need to explore right now to see what is new and typically about 25% of those will wind up being new programs that I will incorporate into the spreadsheet.
I will be done with finals soon and I will get another update out there on the tracker with the latest update on new programs included.
JupiterBike: We appreciate your time, Cameron, and the effort you have put into the project. It’s been a valuable tool for us at Jupiter Electric Bikes and we would love the opportunity to partner with you in the future to help spread the message of your research and the benefits of e-bikes.
CB: Absolutely, and I appreciate those words and the efforts. You know, this is really one of those societal shifts right now that needs to take place at all levels. We are pulling the academic side of things and I’m happy to hear that you are pushing on the community end. Because that’s just as important if not more so at the end of the day. Changing folk’s minds.
I’ll close with this. One thing that we hear a lot – we hear it all the time. The best sales piece for an e-bike is you getting on one and riding it. It really does change your perspective.