On a recent chilly December afternoon, a small parking lot in the industrial Hunts Point section of the Bronx was alive with the sounds of bicycle bells. Representatives from companies like VanMoof, Rad Power Bikes, Zomoo, The Hub NYC, Ride Panda, and others were mingling about a half dozen local residents — drivers, janitors, landscapers, and home health aides — initiating them in the burgeoning electric bike revolution.
These were the first participants in the Equitable Commute Project, a New York-based coalition of non-profit organizations, strategy groups, university researchers, and financial lenders. The goal was to make e-bikes more accessible and more affordable to people in low-income communities, reduce their dependence on cars, and ultimately, create more jobs in the green economy.
Michael Scanlon, a driver for the Hope Program, a workforce development non-profit involved in the project, was there to pick up a brand new VanMoof e-bike. A hefty guy with graying hair and a thick New York accent, Scanlon had only one question after listening to a representative from the Dutch company run through the bike’s features: “Where’s my training wheels?”
But after taking his new e-bike out for an inaugural spin, Scanlon’s New York attitude melted away. “It’s been a rough year for me, personally,” he told me. “I had a pacemaker put in, a gallbladder taken out, three deaths in the family. So I wanted to buy myself a little Christmas gift.”
Scanlon will have some help. Through a partnership with Spring Bank and grants from the state government, the Equitable Commute Project is hoping to subsidize the cost of his VanMoof by up to 50 percent. That means instead of shelling out $2,298 for the S3 e-bike, he would only have to pay $1,149.
Across the country, community groups are soliciting e-bike companies for help competing for state money in the hopes of getting more people riding. Cities like Portland, Denver, and Buffalo are launching pilot projects that explore ways to subsidize e-bike purchases for low-income families or collect enough bikes together to launch mini-shared micromobility services. But the goal isn’t just to get more people on e-bikes; it’s also about reducing tailpipe emissions and saving the planet.
E-bikes are more expensive than normal bikes, typically costing anywhere from $1,000 to $8,000 for some high-end cargo bikes. But they also have the potential to replace car trips for a lot of people, which could help make real progress in the fight against climate change. A recent study found that if just 15 percent of car trips were made by e-bike, carbon emissions would drop by 12 percent.
“There’s the climate piece of ‘let’s get people out of cars and onto bikes,’” said Ash Lovell, e-bike campaign coordinator for People for Bikes, a group that lobbies on behalf of the bike industry. “The more people you get on bikes, the safer biking is for everyone [and] the more incentive there is to build better biking infrastructure. And the more people you get out of cars, the less traffic congestion you have and the better air quality you have.”
Depending on where you live, people interested in buying an e-bike can get financial assistance in the form of a rebate or tax credit. California, for example, offer a range of financial assistance to residents, including a tax credit for people who trade in their polluting car for an e-bike. And e-bikes could get a huge boost if Congress approves President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better bill, which includes a tax credit of up to $900 for e-bikes.
But rebates and tax credits aren’t the best way to get more people from low-income communities using e-bikes, said Melinda Hanson, founder of Electric Avenue, a strategy firm that helped launch the Equitable Commute Project in the Bronx.
“These feel nebulous for most consumers,” she said. “Subsidies at the purchase point are more tangible and likely to be much more effective, especially for lower-income folks.”
Hanson said the project aims to eventually provide bikes to 5,000 people in the Bronx and Brooklyn. Manufacturers like VanMoof, Rad Power Bikes, and Zoomo are covering the subsidy costs for this initial batch of e-bikes, but the project leaders are hoping that fundraising, and a $7 million grant from New York State, will help provide the cash that’s needed to offer future discounts. The group has built out a list of 600 interested people and has had to limit outreach while it continues to fundraise.
Unlike a rebate or a tax credit, the Equitable Commute Project is working with Spring Bank to launch a new financing product to cover the remaining balance of the bike. It’s accessible to those with little or no credit history and is repaid through paycheck deductions with their employer.
The project has focused its outreach on institutions in the Bronx that employ large numbers of frontline workers, including BronxWorks, Montefiore Medical Center, and Urban Health Network. According to Melanie Stern, director of consumer lending at Spring Bank, frontline workers can access e-bike loans of up to $2,500 or Employee Opportunity loans of up to $3,500. “The process is fintech-enabled,” Stern said, “so participating is really simple both for the employer and the borrower.”
The project is also proving to be a convenient opportunity for transportation researchers to learn more about the interaction between cyclists and motor vehicles. Suzana Duran Bernardes is a PhD candidate at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering. Working with the university’s C2SMART Center, she came up with a device that attaches to the downtube of the e-bikes that are being distributed by the Equitable Commute Project.
While the person is riding, the sensors collect data on speed, acceleration, distance, and trajectory, as well as the proximity of other cars and trucks on the road. The goal is to learn more about how people use e-bikes and produce studies into safety, gender equity in cycling, and urban planning.
“We want to benefit as many of the people as possible,” Duran Bernardes said. “Agencies, researchers, cyclists... this data can be useful to everyone.”
One of those people who could use some more assurances about the safety of cycling is Shakira Hart, a supervisor for a local landscaping company. Hart, who lives in the Bronx, doesn’t own a car and usually walks to work, no matter the weather. An e-bike will help cut her commute time in half — but first, she has to learn how to use it.
“There’s a little bit more technicality than I prefer,” Hart said while straddling her new bike from Zoomo. “I figure, you know, once I review the manual, I’ll be good.”