California Capitol Watch: E-Bike Incentive Bill Would Help Improve Air Quality (and Physical Fitness)

Jim Wilson/The New York Times

By Eric Gelber

AB 117 (Horvath), sponsored by the California Bicycle Coalition, would establish a pilot program to incentivize the purchase electric bicycles (e-bikes) by providing rebates as a means of reducing vehicle miles traveled, reducing air, water, and noise pollution, and helping Californians get more exercise.

What problem/issue would the bill address?

California’s climate action plan calls for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030, in part by reducing vehicular petroleum use by 50% renewable electricity. A potential reduction can be achieved by transitioning towards more efficient transport modes, including e-bikes.

What would the bill do?

AB 117 would add incentives for purchasing e-bikes as a project eligible for funding under the Air Quality Improvement Program (AQIP). The bill would require the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to establish and implement, until January 1, 2028, the Electric Bicycle Incentive Project to provide incentives for purchases of e-bikes.


E-bikes are similar to conventional bikes but include an electric motor to take some or all of the effort out of pedaling. E-bikes can usually be operated in either of two modes: (1) A pedal assist mode in which the motor reduces the effort required in pedaling the bike, typically in multiple selectable degrees of assistance; or (2) a throttle mode in which the motor does all the work. Of course, it is possible to turn the motor off and pedal the bike as a conventional (though typically heavier) bike.

E-bikes have particular benefits for seniors and people with disabilities who need e-bikes for mobility, people who take folding e-bikes on transit, and those who use utility bikes to carry equipment or passengers, including children.

E-bikes have physical fitness benefits. People tend to spend more time on longer trips using e-bikes compared to conventional bikes. A recent North American study showed that the average distance for all e-bike trips was 9.3 miles. But, importantly, e-bikes help get people out of cars. Studies have found a car substitution rate in North America ranging from 11 to 46%.

Since the pandemic shelter-in-place mandates began in the U.S. in March 2020, e-bike sales have increased dramatically. Sales were up 84% in March, 92% in April, and 137% in May. As the author of AB 117 points out, however, e-bikes remain expensive and out of reach for many consumers in disadvantaged or underserved communities where this effective transportation option might be more valuable due to the low cost of maintenance, convenience of use, and lack of need for insurance.

Despite the fewer and lower costs of using and maintaining an e-bike, the initial purchase price puts an e-bike out of reach for many low-income consumers. Entry level e-bikes can be purchased for as little as $700 or $800, but the up-front cost of a mid-range e-bike tends to run anywhere from $1,000 to $2,500. Higher-end or luxury models can have prices of $10,000 or more.

Congress is currently considering legislation to offer a 30% tax credit of up to $1,500 for buying an e-bike with a price below $8,000.

AQIP funds projects that reduce criteria air pollutants and improve air quality, along with certain related research projects. CARB provides preference in awarding funding to projects with higher benefit-cost scores that maximize the goals of AQIP but is limited to those projects explicitly called out in statute.

The Clean Cars 4 All Program (CC4A) allows income-eligible vehicle owners to scrap older, higher polluting vehicles and replace them with newer, cleaner hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and zero-emission vehicles. Beginning in 2021, CC4A provides participants the option to scrap an older vehicle and receive funding for an alternative transportation voucher that could be used for public transit, car sharing or the purchase of an e-bike. The program is currently limited to the participating air districts of South Coast, San Joaquin County, the Bay Area, and Sacramento County, so residents in certain areas of the state are not eligible for e-bike vouchers. The requirement to scrap an older vehicle is also a barrier to participation for many potential participants.

AB 117 would establish the Electric Bike Incentive Program pilot project and require that it prioritize funding for individuals from low-income households—those with household incomes at or below 80 percent of the statewide median income or with household incomes at or below the threshold designated as low income by the Department of Housing and Community Development’s list of state income limits.

At this point, AB 117 does not specify a target for the percentage of the total program funding that would be made available for low-income housing; although, the Assembly Transportation Committee analysis of the bill suggests such an amendment.

According to the author, “[a]s we continue electrifying transportation in California, we need to keep an eye to equitable incentives that help working Californians choose to get out of their cars. Many working families need to go on bicycle to get to where they need to go-for work, recreation-and, in many cases, this is their only reliable form of transportation. For many families, living in older, multifamily apartments, electric vehicles remain unattainable because there is no charging infrastructure where they can park. … AB 117 will provide an incentive for electric bicycles, offering a more environmentally friendly alternative to encourage the expansion of biking as a viable form of transportation.”

A coalition of environmental and active transportation groups writes in support of AB 117, “Increasing the number of trips that Californians make by bicycle, in combination with land use changes and improvements to walking and transit, is essential to achieving the reduction in [vehicle miles travelled] … and is absolutely necessary if we are to achieve our [greenhouse gas] reduction goals. The emergence of e-bikes is hugely beneficial to this goal and should be bolstered. Unfortunately, the expense of an e-bike makes them inaccessible to low-income people and deters even middle income people from buying an e-bike. The adoption rate of e-bikes in the U.S., as a proportion of the bicycle market, is a small fraction of the adoption rate in many other countries. Financial assistance is necessary at this stage to foster their adoption at the rate necessary to take advantage of their utility to help meet California’s climate, air quality, and health goals.”

There was no written opposition to AB 117 submitted at the time it was heard by the Assembly Transportation Committee. The bill was passed by the Committee on April 6th on an 11-0 vote (with 4 members not voting) and is now in the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

Eric Gelber, now retired, is a 1980 graduate of UC Davis School of Law (King Hall). He has nearly four decades of experience monitoring, analyzing, and crafting legislation through positions as a disability rights attorney, Chief Consultant with the Assembly Human Services Committee, and Legislative Director of the California Department of Developmental Services.

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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