California Focuses on E-Bike Incentives and Equity

  • Author: Laurel Schwartz
  • Date: September 7, 2023

As the popularity of e-bike incentives sweep the US, California is leading the way with an equity-focused program.

California is embracing the future of transportation by investing in electric bikes (e-bikes), an eco-friendly mode of transit that is garnering immense interest across the state. With the California Bicycle Coalition (Cal Bike) leading the charge for over three decades, the state’s transportation landscape is experiencing significant changes.


CalBike and CalTrans

CalBike collaborates with state agencies like CalTrans, sponsoring and supporting legislation to make transportation infrastructure safer for biker riders and, consequently, pedestrians. It has been crucial in funding and budgeting advocacy, including pushing for the state’s Active Transportation Program (ATP), a program funded by revenue from state and federal highway funds dedicated to “encourage use of active modes of transportation such as biking and walking.” While ATP is a dedicated funding source, demand is exceeding supply.

“It’s a victim of its own success,” said CalBike Communications Specialist Laura McCamy. “Communities want to add bike friendly and pedestrian friendly infrastructure. There’s never enough money to fund all the projects that come through,” she said.


The Funding Challenge

Bike-friendly infrastructure programs are funded on two-year cycles in California. Despite a budget surplus in 2021, there still wasn’t enough to fund all desired projects. After years of advocacy from CalBike and the bike riding community, the state launched the CA Electric Bicycle Incentive Program (EBIP) as an extension of subsidies the state already gives to help people purchase electric cars. The initial pilot secured  —a small amount for a state with a $231 billion annual budget serving 39 million people. This month, the CA Air Resources Board, which runs the program, announced $18 million for e-bike incentives in its 2023-2024 draft budget.

In addition to state-level incentive programs, many California counties, municipalities, and energy companies offer additional rebates.


Equity-Centered Incentives

While some states offer e-bike rebates and incentives to residents regardless of their income, California is focusing on serving income and location qualified residents who might not otherwise be able to afford an e-bike. “Rebates are lovely, but you have to have the money up front to buy an e-bike for the rebate to work. That excludes a lot of low-income people,” explained McCamy.

Point of sale (POS) vouchers are available to California residents age 18+ with an annual household income of 300% or below the Federal Poverty Level (FPL). For residents of select disadvantaged communities, vouchers are available for adults with an income 225% or below the FPL.. Incentives start at $1,000 and can be used towards the purchase of an e-bike and safety gear including a helmet.

“E-bikes are a game changer for disabled people, seniors, and people with health issues,” said McCamy.

She highlighted that this innovative mobility solution is helpful for people whose commute to work is too long for a regular bike but is feasible with the support of an electric motor. Cargo e-bikes are also an affordable solution for workers who need to haul equipment between jobsites.

Ms. McCamy recalled a low-income trailer park community she knew of that was almost four miles from the nearest store in a rural community. E-bikes have transformed their mobility options. “People couldn’t afford cars. An e-bike let residents ride on a small rural road to get to the store,” she said.

E-bikes have also become popular with families who need to bring kids to school. “It’s fun for the kids,” she said. “They’re not stuck in the back of a car, they’re out in the air and can talk with you back and forth.”


Spontaneous Combustion and Safety Concerns

E-bike safety, particularly batteries, has become an issue as the technology has grown in popularity. In New York City, for example, delivery workers were buying off-market inexpensive batteries that could be swapped out to be charged quickly. If the cells of the lithium batteries lack a robust protective membrane, something found almost exclusively on low-quality and after-market batteries, they can catch fire at high temperatures.

To prevent the sale of dangerous low-quality batteries, e-bike incentives were only going to be permitted to be used in-person at approved bike shops. Ultimately, to include rural populations, the state permitted online purchases to make the incentive available to people who might not have a bike shop locally.

Currently, there are no federal regulations on e-bike batteries. To ensure safety of these devices, the state’s Air Resources Board is only allowing the sale of batteries deemed safe via the UL and other safety verification services.


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