In 2021, the EBIKE Act was introduced by US Reps. Earl Blumenauer and Jimmy Panetta. The act proposed a subsidy of up to $1,500 for new e-bikes, aiming to encourage the use of this emerging mode of transportation. E-bikes have multiple benefits, including significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The EBIKE Act came close to becoming federal law but ultimately fell short. Caron Whitaker, the deputy executive director of the League of American Bicyclists, attributed this to a lack of enthusiasm from environmental supporters. She highlighted the challenge of convincing environmental NGOs that a substantial shift to e-bike usage can make a meaningful difference in reducing greenhouse gases.

The EBIKE Act was reintroduced on March 21, 2023. The reintroduced e-bike bill has received far greater attention, garnering vocal support from groups like the Sierra Club (which stayed silent on the initial bill). Noa Banayan, director of  e-bike advocacy group People for Bikes, acknowledged the growing popularity of e-bikes in the environmental NGO community.

The increased support for e-bikes represents a shift in the priorities of environmental organizations. While they have previously focused primarily on electrification, many climate advocates now recognize the importance of reducing overall car usage, not just switching to electric cars. This change is beneficial for the future of e-bikes, public transit, and the environment.

Environmentalists’ Embrace of Electric Cars

Historically, transportation has been the primary source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Two approaches can address this issue: improving the efficiency of vehicles while in use or encouraging people to drive less. In the 1990s, environmental groups prioritized improving fuel economy, rather than encouraging a shift in transportation modes.

Efforts led by Dan Becker and others resulted in some victories, such as stricter fuel economy standards and successful campaigns against gas-guzzling vehicles. However, Americans continued to drive more. As a result, transportation emissions in the US increased by 6.6 percent from 1990 to 2020.

To tackle this problem, many environmental groups turned to electrifying cars. They acknowledged that a significant portion of global greenhouse gas emissions came from transportation and believed that electric cars were the obvious answer. However, they didn’t emphasize the importance of reducing overall car usage. Presently, Earthjustice’s website still highlights electric cars as the “wave of the future.”

It was politically advantageous for environmental groups to promote electric cars for many reasons. Electric cars bypassed the challenge of changing people’s travel habits. The adoption of electric cars also benefited car companies financially and garnered support from influential autoworker unions. Lastly, environmental donors were generally supportive of this pro-electric car approach.

As a result, there was limited attention given to those advocating for reducing overall driving to address climate change.

The Advantages of E-Bikes

Anti-car advocates have not had significant influence, but scientific research supports their cause. A 2020 report by the OECD revealed that using an e-bike or bus, even if it’s diesel-powered, emits fewer emissions compared to an electric car. Additionally, a University of Toronto study in the same year concluded that even if electric vehicle adoption reaches the most optimistic forecasts, it would still fail to make a meaningful difference in global temperatures.

Rather than acknowledging the limited benefits of replacing all 278 million cars in the US with electric models, environmental groups fully endorsed the idea and pushed for electric vehicle incentives in last year’s climate bill.

Through their lobbying efforts, alongside those of the auto industry, their goals were achieved. Americans can now get up to $7,500 off an electric car, truck, or SUV through the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA).

Congress’s decision to subsidize electric cars but not e-bikes lacked logical reasoning given the overwhelming evidence that e-bikes, with their minimal carbon footprint, can effectively replace many car trips.

Environmental Groups Are Finally Challenging Car Culture

Although the 2021 attempt to introduce a federal e-bike incentive was not successful, it did bring attention to the potential of e-bikes in the climate conversation. Environmental groups are now more informed about the benefits of e-bikes, as well as transit and walking.

Furthermore, with the success of car electrification, environmental groups are seeking new challenges to keep their donors and volunteers engaged. Shifting to new modes of transportation serves that purpose.

E-bike advocates believe that they have gained momentum. Organizations like the Union of Concerned Scientists and Environment America have expanded their emphasis on mobility choices and investments in pedestrian infrastructure.

Fresh support from environmental NGOs may not necessarily result in a surge of federal funding for bike lanes, sidewalks, and bus service, especially with Republicans in control of the House. However, it’s encouraging to see that advocates for transit, biking, and walking are gaining new allies who can potentially amplify their voices.