This story was originally published by The Guardian and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

After several years of false starts, electric bikes are finally entering the American mainstream, amid booming sales of a multiplying number of models on offer and as more states offer incentives for people to ditch their cars and shift to two, motor-assisted, wheels.

This year could be considered “the year of the ebike”, according to John MacArthur, a transport researcher at Portland State University. Ebike sales in the United States leaped by 269% between 2019 and 2022, with the market size expected to have grown further in 2023, to be worth $2.59bn.

While ebikes took off in other parts of the world the US was slow to catch on, until the Covid pandemic, when streets were closed off, public transit numbers dropped and people were looking for alternative ways to get around. This, combined with city and state efforts to cut pollution from transportation to meet climate goals, has helped fuel an ebike surge that has no sign of abating.

“All these converging trends means that I think we’ll look back at this year and think this was an important moment,” said MacArthur. “Ebikes are in the zeitgeist, people are talking about them. They are inclusive of everyone. Even my mom is thinking of getting one.”

Nationally, Joe Biden’s administration has been fixated on shifting people from gasoline cars to electric cars, with tax credits worth up to $7,500 to people who want to get an EV. But there is no comparable federal support for buying an ebike, even though sales of ebikes now outstrip that of electric cars and many experts point to the superior benefits of the two-wheeled version, which emits less air pollution from tire wear and are safer in road accidents.

In lieu of this, there are more than 100 city and state-based incentives to boost ebike adoption across the US, according to a database compiled by MacArthur. One of the most significant ebike support packages could soon be put in place by New York, with the state senate passing a bill that offsets 50% of the purchase of a new ebike or electric scooter, up to $1,100.

Jabari Brisport, a Democratic New York state senator, said despite a delay he is optimistic that the bill will pass the lower house, the New York assembly, and be signed by the governor. “I haven’t heard of any pushback to the bill,” said Brisport, who occasionally uses a publicly shared ebike to get to his Brooklyn office.

Ebikes take the U.S. by storm, after years of false starts. #Ebikes #ClimateChange #ClimateGoals #ElectricBikes

“There is a lot of focus on moving people from one type of car to another type of car but there are other modes of transportation and ebikes are one of them. They are a low-carbon form of transportation that are great for getting around the city for short trips.”

Ebikes add a battery and a motor to the classic bicycle frame and provide a helping hand, as if someone were pushing at your back, when pedaling. There are different classifications of ebikes – some, with throttles that power the ebike independently of pedaling, can reach as fast as 28mph – but all are considered climate-friendly, even more so than electric cars. Globally, there are about 280m electric mopeds, bikes and scooters and, combined, these vehicles are already cutting demand for oil by about a million barrels a day.

But the rise of ebikes has greater connotations than just climate change, MacArthur points out. You can now get foldable ebikes, for commutes, or large cargo ebikes that can carry 550lb in weight. They can be used by people of different physical abilities. Half of all trips made by Americans are under three miles – a distance ebikes can easily conquer. Suddenly, cycling isn’t just a fitness activity or something done for fun by small children – it is a method to run errands and get to work in car-centric America.

“They break down barriers that people worry about – around distance, about physical ability, about being too hot and sweaty when you arrive somewhere,” MacArthur said. “You have batteries with a 40-mile range on them and so you can consider them in a more utilitarian way, outside recreation. Ebikes are changing how people view cycling.”

When Bryn Grunwald, a transport analyst at the environment group RMI, got her first ebike six years ago she initially felt it “sounded silly” but had a revelatory moment when she used it to get to college, via a steep hill. “The first time I biked up that hill, it was a life-changing experience – I wasn’t sweaty, I wasn’t out of breath and red in the face, I was invigorated,” said Grunwald, who is based in Colorado. “I’ve been evangelical about them over since.”

Grunwald said her own ebike use has lessened her dependence upon her car and saved her money in running and maintenance costs, which are comparatively tiny for an ebike. Her enthusiasm appears to be shared by others in Denver – when the city offered a new rebate scheme last year the website for applications promptly crashed from the number of people visiting it.

“I think something has shifted in the US,” Grunwald said. “Not everyone wants to bike but not everyone wants to drive and it makes life better for everyone to have one less person sitting in car traffic. I use the ebike to get groceries, to get a library book, to go to work. When that pedal assist kicks in, it feels very fun and freeing.”

A man riding an electric bike at 8th Avenue between West 35th and West 36th Street in New York City, NY on Thursday, June 24, 2021. Photo by Elvert Barnes/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0 Deed)

There are caveats to the ebike success story. They remain expensive compared with regular bicycles – ranging from about $1,000 to $16,000 or more – and many Americans still fear riding around on streets that are typically dominated by hulking SUVs and lack separated bike lanes.

“We won’t see this go anywhere unless we see more biking infrastructure in cities,” MacArthur cautioned.

There are also safety concerns raised by those not on the ebikes. Some pedestrians and other cyclists are unnerved by ebikes whizzing past at faster speeds than a regular bicycle, while a spate of fires in New York emanating from the lithium-ion batteries the bikes use has highlighted the dangers posed by faulty or cheaply made batteries (regulations have recently been put in place in New York City to ensure that ebike batteries meet a certain safety standard).

Such concerns are reasonable, MacArthur said, but should be compared with the status quo offered by cars, which also catch on fire and are responsible for about 40,000 deaths a year in the US due to accidents. If ebikes are to replace car journeys, rather than just other bikes, the net benefits should be tangible.

“The majority of people killed while walking are killed by cars, that is the real issue,” MacArthur said. “The key thing is to have separated walking and biking areas to reduce conflicts. Ebikes won’t solve everything, they aren’t a panacea, but I think more cities will be leaning into them.”

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I almost didn't look at this article because the headline sounded like one of those click-bait ad things at the bottom of dodgy news sites. Hint for whoever writes the headlines: Don't say "take by storm", it is as the young people say "cringe".

Worth noting, perhaps, is that they are banned on public transit in several US cities, because of spontaneously combusting batteries that have caused several fires on transit.

Interesting and informative story, if you live in the US. How about a Canadian perspective, which would be much more useful to myself and (fellow) Canadians.

i forgot to ask in my comment, where can the ebikes be charged? Again, in Canada preferably.