Davey Van Beveren hadn’t ridden a bike since he was a teenager, so to him, riding 11 miles into downtown Denver to get to work seemed like something only a hardcore cyclist would attempt.
But when the 27-year-old moved to Colorado’s largest city in March, Denver was launching a program to cut the cost of e-bikes. The money would mean Van Beveren could get a quality bike for $600 and, suddenly, that ride no longer looked like such an obstacle. He now winds through side streets near his home and onto a trail to his job at the Colorado Symphony.
“It’s just been amazing,” Van Beveren said. “I didn’t realize how much of a drag commuting by car was.”
The program proved to be such a hit across the city that getting a rebate check was like scoring concert tickets, requiring hopeful buyers to be at their keyboards at 8 a.m. the day that each month’s batch was released. Van Beveren is one of 4,726 people who used the program in its first year, while advocates say it’s become a model for other cities seeking to cut pollution and congestion.
Advocacy groups that were disappointed when a federal credit for e-bikes was dropped from the Inflation Reduction Act, which will subsidize the purchase of electric cars and SUVs, are looking for states and cities to take the lead.
“We’ve been pushing Denver’s model to our e-bike, incentive-curious city partners across the U.S. given the level of success they’ve reached,” said Noa Banayan, director of federal affairs at advocacy organization PeopleForBikes.
Researchers at Portland State University are tracking 65 programs nationwide that are active or that have been approved to help people get on e-bikes, either through subsidies or loaning a bike. California plans to launch a statewide program next year backed by $10 million.
E-bikes, which have a motor and battery to propel riders, can cost about $2,000, putting them out of reach for many low-income families. Denver’s program has two tiers, with one that offers $400 to any city resident – an amount aimed at sweetening the deal for would-be buyers. For low-income residents, the second tier increases the voucher size to $1,200, a sum city officials say should make the bikes more widely affordable.
Two other elements of the program are designed to encourage buyers to use their bikes for transportation: a bonus of $500 for cargo bikes, which can carry children or a large load, while full-suspension mountain bikes used primarily for recreation aren’t eligible.
In all, Denver has spent $4.8 million on the vouchers, funded from a quarter-cent sales tax city voters approved in 2020 to provide funding for environmental initiatives.
The city paused the rebate program in the fall because of demand, but it plans to bring it back in 2023. In the meantime, Grace Rink, the city’s chief climate officer, and her team have been studying how participants are using their new bikes and say they are pleased with the results.
“If you think you’re seeing e-bikes everywhere, you are,” said Rink. “The momentum of it has been exciting because it has created so much chatter.”
A city survey found new e-bike riders were riding, on average, 26.2 miles per week, and that low-income buyers were riding about 32 miles per week. Respondents said they had replaced 3.4 car trips each week with bike rides.
“It’s so much faster,” said Rink, who commutes by e-bike. “It’s much less of a chore. There is an element of joy in riding the e-bike.”
Craig Chassen, 41, and his wife decided they would both get a bike using the program. Chassen, a stay-at-home dad, said the bikes became his main way this past summer of transporting his kids and getting to a job coaching volleyball. His wife still drives to work, but Chassen said the family is driving less often.
“The kids love it,” Chassen said. “Now we’re able to go to a playground that’s a lot farther away without getting in a car.”
The program works in partnership with local bike shops, where buyers redeem the rebates. Bobby Brown, marketing manager for SloHi Bike Company, which has two locations in Denver, said that means buyers have a reliable source of help for repairs, much like drivers at a car dealership.
E-bikes became so popular in Denver that Brown said manufacturers would have to remind stores in the city that they still needed to supply dealers in other parts of the country.
“We were literally trying to get containers of electric cargo bikes because we knew we could sell all of them,” he said.
City officials say they expect seasonality in how many people use their bikes – one of the limits of trying to replace car travel. Chassen said he expects to ride a lot less as temperatures dip over the winter.
Van Beveren said on a recent day that the 22-degree temperature was too cold for a bike ride. But Denver’s weather fluctuates throughout the winter, he said, so he doesn’t expect to pack the bike away until spring.
“I want to keep doing it as much as possible on those warmer days,” he said.