‘Micromobility has proven its value as an affordable, efficient, and equitable transport option and should play a prominent role as our cities reopen and residents head back to work.’
Last March, as COVID-19 shut down most of our city, more and more New Yorkers began turning to two-wheels. Essential workers still had to get to work and, with little known about how the virus was transmitted, many chose to get around on electric bikes, mopeds, bikes, and e-scooters. A convenient alternative early in the pandemic, micromobility use has exploded in cities across the US, with e-bike sales up 145 percent and demand so high that micromobility retailers struggle to keep up.
Micromobility has proven its value as an affordable, efficient, and equitable transport option and should play a prominent role as our cities reopen and residents head back to work. Research suggests we have a narrow window to lock in and accelerate this trend and that both government and employers have a role to play. That’s why it’s urgent that the Biden administration enact the E-BIKE Act to provide a 30 percent tax credit for e-bike purchases and that U.S. corporations follow their European counterparts’ footsteps to help workers access micromobility through innovative approaches to financing.
The current micromobility wave has been a long time coming. Electric bikes have been popular in China since the 1990s, but their clunky design, lead-acid batteries, and maintenance challenges prevented them from taking off globally. In recent years, improvements in lithium-ion batteries have sparked a design frenzy, with companies offering an array of electric micromobility options, including foldable scooters, cargo bikes that can shuttle children, and e-bikes with rugged tires designed to perform year-round.
More than just a trend for socially-distanced times, electric micromobility has the potential to help address transportation injustice in our country. Transport access is essential to escaping poverty in America, yet most of our cities have inadequate transit service. While the average new car costs $40,000 to buy and $9,000 in annual costs—a substantial financial burden, especially for lower-income families—a high-quality e-bike costs just $2,000 to purchase, and daily ‘refueling’ costs less than 25 cents. With maintenance costs, battery replacement every four years, and electricity use, that’s under $300 per year, 95 percent less than a car.
Micromobility can also replace a significant number of car trips, reducing traffic congestion and carbon emissions. According to the Rocky Mountain Institute, the United States needs to reduce vehicle miles traveled by 20 percent in the next nine years to meet our climate targets. For decades, getting Americans to choose alternate modes seemed impossible—but electric micromobility is changing that. Studies have found that up to two-thirds of car trips in cities worldwide are single occupant and under 10 miles—meaning electric bikes, scooters, or mopeds are a more suitable option. To date, electric two-and three-wheelers have done more to reduce fossil fuel consumption than electric cars and electric buses combined.
Federal and state subsidies have bolstered the automobile industry and wealthy Americans for decades. Today, someone who buys a $50,000 electric car can offset their purchase with more than $7,000 in tax breaks and up to $4,000 in rebates, depending on their state of residence. These incentives primarily benefit the wealthy: 78 percent of the credits go to people making at least $100,000 per year, and 7 percent go to people making $1 million a year. These breaks do little to address the inequity, road safety, and traffic congestion issues caused by car-dominated transportation. While we wait for decades for the car fleet to turn over and renewable energy to get online, passenger vehicle emissions continue to be a problem.
Incentivizing micromobility is a proven solution that can get cities moving again and begin to address the long-standing equity issues exacerbated by car dominance. In Italy, Lithuania, Sweden, and the UK, government subsidies have helped replace car trips and expand micromobility use. Employer leasing programs in places like Germany have helped lower-income workers pay for e-bikes directly out of their paychecks. These programs have been so successful at spurring micromobility use in Europe that e-bikes are now on-track to outsell cars by 2025.
We can achieve a similar outcome in the U.S. More than 600,000 people bought e-bikes in the U.S. last year; with a 30 percent tax credit, that number could grow exponentially and increase transportation access in all cities immediately. The E-BIKE Act and similar policy proposals at the state level are promising, and we must ensure they succeed.
While we wait for Congress to advance this bill, there’s an immediate opportunity for corporate America to help get our cities moving again by supporting lower-income essential workers to access micromobilty. One such initiative is underway in New York City. A coalition of organizations—including Transportation Alternatives, NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business, NYU Rudin Center for Transportation, the Hope Program, and Electric Avenue—have banded together to get micromobility in the hands of 10,000 essential workers. The Equitable Commute Project (ECP) is negotiating fleet discounts, tapping corporate leadership to subsidize the vehicle purchase cost, and partnering with Spring Bank to open the program to those without credit histories. The ECP will deliver an immediate, tangible impact for New Yorkers who have been on the front lines of this devastating pandemic and provide a roadmap for the equitable implementation of policies at the federal, state, and city levels.
By giving Americans more affordable, accessible, and sustainable options, the Biden administration can help support recovery, dismantle inequitable transportation systems, and create a cleaner and sustainable future for generations to come. And there will soon be a great example in New York to show the way forward.
Danny Harris is the executive director at Transportation Alternatives. Marianna Koval is the director of the Invest NYC SDG Initiative at the NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business. Melinda Hanson is co-founder and principal at Electric Avenue.