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EVs are expensive. These city commuters ditched cars altogether — for e-bikes

Lelac Almagor carries her son, 3-year-old Oren, and infant daughter, Tamar, in her e-cargo bike.
Adam Bearne
Lelac Almagor carries her son, 3-year-old Oren, and infant daughter, Tamar, in her e-cargo bike.

Electric cars are seen as a key way to reduce climate change causing emissions — but they are expensive. The average price paid for a new electric vehicle towards the end of 2022 was over $65,000, according toKelley Blue Book.

While running costs are typically lower than a gas-powered vehicle, there are tax, insurance and parking costs.

Lelac Almagor thinks there's a better way to ditch a fossil-fueled car.

"I just really hate driving. The sitting and the being stuck and the waiting is just really not for me," said the mother of three from Washington D.C.

She takes her family almost everywhere by electric bike.

She proved it by taking me on a ride, along with her 3-year-old son Oren strapped in next to me, and her infant daughter Tamar snugly secured in a baby seat.

Despite clutching her tambourine, Tamar got a little fussy — perhaps because of the 200-pound stranger now crowding her space — but was quickly lulled to sleep once we got underway.

Oren was enjoying the crests and dips of the DC Metropolitan Branch Trail.

"I like the up and down and up and down," he squealed.

Almagor had tried other options for commuting, such as public transportation, but that became problematic once she had children.

"I used to Metro a lot and take the bus a lot, and then when I had kids, it just became a little bit too complicated to get to where we were going with the kids and the stuff that the kids have," she said.

Almagor had also tried to ride with a regular bike in the past, but describes herself as a "failed bike commuter."

"I'm not that spandex cyclist type of person, that's not me. I really hate biking up hills," she added.

Electric bikes use a battery and an electric motor to boost the rider's own input, or in some cases, to take over entirely.

Replacing car trips for those kinds of errands has an obvious environmental impact, even if that's not Alamgor's main motivation for riding.

"I felt guilty every time I used the car, partly because of my concern about fossil fuels and my family's carbon footprint, but if there hadn't been a way to fix it that was convenient and joyful, we would probably still be driving and feeling guilty about it," she said.

Buying an e-bike has changed more than the way Almagor gets around.

After 19 years as a teacher, she's loving 'bike life' so much that she ended up working for the company she bought the bike from.

The ease and convenience Almagor experiences could convince more people to give up their car for these short trips, and there are many of them.

TheBureau of Transportation Statistics found that in 2021, 52% of all trips were three miles or less, a distance most people could cover by e-bike.

That's why theCity and County of Denver is giving out vouchers towards the purchase of an e-bike.

"We have a fairly car-dependent culture, so there's a fairly high rate of single occupancy vehicle trips," said Grace Troccolo Rink, executive director of the city's Office of Climate Action, Sustainability, and Resiliency.

The program was launched last year on Earth Day.

Denver residents could get $400 for an e-bike, or $1200 if they have a lower income. And that amount is right around the price of an entry-level e-bike, which is more expensive than most regular bikes.

If they wanted an e-cargo bike, the kind really suited to replacing car trips, they got an additional $500. The vouchers were so popular, the city's funding for all of 2022 was quickly allocated.

The program will resume at the end of January 2023, although the voucher amounts will be slightly lower. The city says this will help them make the funding available to more new e-bike riders.

Troccolo Rink said the vouchers "got people off the fence" when it came to buying an e-bike.

That cost can be sizable, with e-bikes usually costing more than what are becoming known as "acoustic bikes."

But the Denver program has the intended effect, according to preliminary survey results of voucher recipients.

"On average, the people who have responded are saying they are biking 26.2 miles overall per week, and they're replacing 3.4 car trips for an average of 21.6 miles of replaced car trips per week. I think that's a pretty good result," noted Troccolo Rink.

Numbers like that are why bike advocates like Noa Banayan of People for Bikeswant to see incentives at a federal level.

"Every community should be thinking about the fastest ways to cut their emissions. It's not building out, necessarily, an electric-vehicle charging network that'll be live in five, 10 years. It's giving people an e-bike and giving them a safe place to ride it," she said.

Noa Banayan with her e-bike in the Pennsylvania Avenue bike lane.
/ Adam Bearne
Adam Bearne
Noa Banayan with her e-bike in the Pennsylvania Avenue bike lane.

Banayan is hoping that lawmakers in Washington will pass the kind of incentives for electric bikes that are available to people who buy electric cars.

"It's about giving people choice in how they move. And if we're giving people an incentive to choose cars, electric vehicles, and not necessarily an electric bicycle, then we're locking our transportation system into the way it has been, which is really car dominated," she added.

One problem with e-bike adoption will be with people living in rural areas, according to Skyler McKinley of AAA Colorado.

"It is incredibly expensive across America to live in cities right now. Folks increasingly are not living in urban centers. They are further flung, where they might have to drive a significant amount of time to get to, say, the grocery store. In that case, they're probably going to go with an internal combustion engine over an e-bike," he said.

McKinley says that gasoline-powered vehicles are likely to be the preferred option for a while because of the high price of electric cars.

"The problem with electric vehicles from an equity perspective is that the average cost of an electric vehicle in the United States is north of $65,000. And while rebates and refunds and incentives are available, that is steep for anyone buying a new car. Certainly there's a very limited used car market for EVs because they're relatively new. So finding an affordable electric car is not in the cards for many, many working Americans."

Despite working in the automotive field, McKinley can see the appeal of e-bikes.

"If you live in a city and need to go buy some groceries in a supermarket that's two miles away, that absolutely does not need to be a car trip. You can get a cargo e-bike and do that task safely, efficiently and just about as easily as you would with an automobile," he said.

But long-distance travel isn't an issue for Almagor in Washington.

"Between me and my husband, we've put 12 thousand miles on our bikes in the last couple of years. When I think about that number, what it means most to me is how many minutes I spent having fun with my kids outside."

The audio version of this piece was edited by Miranda Kennedy. The digital story was edited by Majd Al-Waheidi. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Adam Bearne
Adam Bearne is an editor for Morning Edition who joined the team in August 2022.

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