By Laura Bliss
Climate-friendly e-bikes are a key part of plans to decarbonize urban transportation. To speed adoption, more cities are offering lending programs that can expose more riders to this new mode.
Kate McCarthy had no problem biking downtown from her home in Montpelier, Vermont. It was the ride back — and the steep quarter-mile climb up Franklin Street — that killed her enthusiasm. When it came time to pick up her son from school or go shopping, taking the car was easiest. She mostly walked to work.
But when McCarthy and her husband decided to expand their family, they knew they’d need a second option to move everyone around. She didn’t want to have to buy a second car. So when a lending library for battery-boosted e-bikes came to their local outdoors shop in summer 2019, the couple jumped at the opportunity to borrow one for free. For four days, they experimented with a cargo e-bike with a child’s seat to see how it handled the hills for errands and commutes. They liked it so much that they bought a used Yuba Mundo off Craigslist a year later.
“We’re really pleased with how well we’ve been able to make the cargo bike a piece of our mobility puzzle,” McCarthy said. “It’s easy to have two cars, but sometimes you really just need a little extra bit of mobility a few times a week.”
It probably wouldn’t have happened without the earlier trial, she said, which was made possible by Local Motion, a Vermont-based nonprofit that advocates for cycling and bike infrastructure. Since 2017, the organization has been lending e-bikes from its Burlington headquarters during the warm months, and for the past three years has sent a traveling fleet of loaners to other towns around the state. The goal of the program is to expose more riders to the relatively nascent mode, and nudge some toward potentially purchasing a two-wheeler of their own.
With U.S. sales growing 145% in 2020 — boosted in part by Covid-19 shutdowns and an explosion in outdoor recreation — e-bikes are steadily becoming more familiar sights on the streets. Policy leaders are eyeing the vehicles as key agents in the battle to reduce carbon emissions from transportation: Research has shown that e-bikes can substitute for car trips more readily than regular bikes, with riders traveling longer distances and more frequently. Their overall carbon impact is a fraction of that of electric cars.