OP-ED | E-Bike Rebates Transform Behavior

Credit: Angel Boligan, El Universal, Mexico City, www.caglecartoons.com / CTNewsJunkie via Cagle Cartoons / ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Kerri Ana Provost

In the CHEAPR program’s first year (2015-16), 626 rebates were issued for the lease or purchase of new electric vehicles. In the first 10 days of the Connecticut Electric Bicycle Rebate Program, 5,000 people completed applications and another 5,000 had started but not finished their applications. CT DEEP still has to process these, ensuring applicants are state residents, but even with a modest margin of error, this is a big deal.

During the lead up to the bill’s passage and even after, some had woefully underestimated the appetite for e-bikes. Even advocates were blown away by how quickly the public started the rebate process. Only hours after the application form was posted online, 1,200 people had submitted their electronic paperwork.

For some, e-bikes may simply be recreational vehicles, though with the health benefits of cycling, there’s no need to sneer. Even after taking into consideration crash risks, being active is better than remaining sedentary. For those who have never ridden an electric bicycle, let me tell you, they are not motorcycles. You do have to pedal. The assist makes it less arduous to climb hills, but exercise is required.

For some, these will be car replacements. If you aren’t a fan of rivers overflowing their banks in summer or knowing that this past week included some of the hottest days in recorded history, then applaud those making an effort to do something about it. I know multiple people, several with children, who replaced their second car with an e-bike – for toting kids to school, picking up groceries, and commuting to work. I know others who have used their e-bikes as work vehicles.

And those who thought they were only signing up for merely an off-road two-wheeled freedom machine? Nobody should be surprised to see them start using their e-bikes for more than a good time on rail trails. They might not ask to have their car towed away, but it will stay parked in the driveway a bit more often, reducing tailpipe emissions.

Before the launch, there were opportunities for members of the public – including bike shops – to weigh in on everything from which e-bikes would be approved to what the rebate process should look like to how DEEP should get the word out, in particular to those who qualify for Voucher+, an additional rebate for those living in Environmental Justice communities or Distressed Municipalities, as well as those with an income less than 300% of the Federal Poverty Level. Those giving feedback advised DEEP to create as few hurdles as possible. The rebate application is less burdensome than was expected because they took public input seriously.

To dodge problems, like fires resulting from low-quality components, the rebate only applies to certain models, with the list updated as needed. Currently, there are over 40 models that meet standards for price, warranty, and certification for battery and electrical components. If bike shops are not adequately stocked, that is a question for shop managers, who had access to information about eligible models before the program launched at the end of June.

The delay between program launch and voucher pre-approval benefits both bike shops and consumers, giving the former a chance to stock merchandise and the latter time to be educated on what they plan to purchase. During the rollout, oversimplified reporting omitted details, such as that consumers would not be able to walk into just any store and apply the discount to all electric bikes. Those with dreams of schlepping their 1.9 kids and golden retriever about town in a Bakfiets Cruiser need to readjust their fantasies to include a less pricey model.

Those who have put no thought into what fuels these rides can take the time to learn about safety. Damaged batteries, along with those that are unlicensed and shoddy quality, can cause hard-to-extinguish fires, with effects exacerbated through things like unattended, overnight charging and thoughtless storage. Some have been upset about the rebate not covering DIY conversion kits, allowing customers to modify their current acoustic bike into one with an assist, and while this annoyance is justified for knowledgable, skilled mechanics, judging from the existing MacGyvered electric bikes in my neighborhood this restriction is warranted. Before condemning e-bikes as a whole as a fire risk, a little information helps to remind people that anything with a lithium-ion battery – including phones and laptops – has caused fires, and the same types of precautions a person takes with their other ubiquitous electronics are the ones they can adopt for a bicycle.

While Consumer Reports says that six people died between from 2017 through 2021 in the United States in fires caused by e-bikes, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced that 42,795 people were killed in motor vehicle traffic crashes in the United States in 2022 alone. Selling machines that kill is nothing new in this country, and better regulation is needed whether we are talking about e-bike batteries or every type of car.

What to watch for now is how many residents take the next step and redeem those vouchers. They do not last indefinitely, and if stores cannot keep up with demand, decisions will need to be made, possibly extending rebate deadlines. Then, DEEP, which is administering this program, can consider recharging the incentive program’s pot of money. The availability of electric bicycles to more adults, in tandem with improvements to our public transportation, is what was needed yesterday to make Connecticut a more sustainable, livable place.

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