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#eBikeThoughts: Battling Congestion with eBikes

E-Bikes have a chance to succeed where traditional bicycles have failed. By adding the assistance of a small motor, they are starting chip away at some of the excuses why drivers haven’t switched to cycling as a primary or even supplementary means of transportation. Polls have shown, up to 40% of eBike owners bought them to replace car trips. Unfortunately, the price of entry is still relatively high. While there are exceptions, my personal belief is an eBike worth purchasing, for a dedicated commute, should cost about $3,000 to $3,500.

University of Minnesota Transitway

University of Minnesota Transitway


Back when I was on Twitter, I had a suggestion, which someone said should become a streets.mn article. After reading Andy Singer’s Why You Should Oppose a Gas Tax Increase article, I decided to revisit the idea.

The tweet was in response to MnDOT’s announcement they had come up with a $300 million redesign for the I-494/I-35W interchange. I said, for $300 million, you could buy 10,000 people eBikes ($3000) with clothing for wet and winter ($1000), plus years of maintenance ($1000) and still have $250,000,000 left over for world-class bike infrastructure, for them to ride on. Or better yet, $125 million for bike infrastructure and $125 million for transit (not everyone bikes all-year round).

eBike on the Blue Line

What if, instead of spending tens or hundreds of millions of dollars on increasing road capacity, we bought people a means of getting off that road completely. We have already given subsidies for electric cars. But electric cars do nothing to address congestion. Here’s my idea for how a test could work. Budget: $10 million—a fraction of any road expanding project and possible to achieve with funds not restricted by requirements for use.

First, identify a frequently congested stretch of Interstate. Ideally one with decent parallel bike infrastructure in place. For this example, let’s say I-35W from HWY 62 to Downtown. Carve out $4 million for employees and other administrative costs.

While I think it would hinder adoption, there could even be direct accountability built into such a program. An app could be developed ($1 million, for development, backend hardware, maintenance) for candidates who wanted to try switching. Each interested individual would run the app to track their daily commute route and times, for say, a month.The app data could be used to select the top 1,000 candidates who travel during the highest periods of congestion.

However the 1,000 candidates are chosen, hold community meetings  with the candidates to discuss how the program will work.  Invite speakers to talk about commuting by bike, show bike friendly routes, discuss how to ride multi-modal using the train or bus, and other overview information to ensure the candidates are still up for the idea. Those who are not can be replaced with others in the pool.

The conditions to get a bike are such: You must average three or more commuting trips by bike per week. This average allows for time off, bad weather, and jobs that occasionally require greater distances traveled (e.g. a second office location). Failure to do so, after the first year, means you either pay for a portion of the bike (based on depreciation) or return the bike, with liabilities for excessive damage. Success in the program (which could be 1 year or multiple years) means you can submit up to $1,000 in receipts for outdoor clothing reimbursement and up to $1,000 in receipts for bicycle maintenance/repair. Success also means, you own the bike free-and-clear.

Dinkytown Greenway

Dinkytown Greenway


Bikes could be purchased with a $3,000 voucher from participating bicycle shops, who would get reimbursed. Or maybe the rider chooses a shop and the program issues a check for up to $3,000 to the shop. Total for bikes, $3 million. Total for reimbursements of clothing and maintenance, up to $2 million.

Some may argue the clothing reimbursements are superfluous. I included them because having the right clothing reduces the number of excuses not to bike. If we were to create a program like this, I think we’d want it to have the highest chances for success. Comfort, in our state’s wildly changing weather, would go a long way in achieving that.

Sure there are a large number of variables I haven’t considered. Nor do I have time to cover them all in this article. But, even if the pilot program cost $20 million per 1,000 riders, wouldn’t it be worth it? What a headline in the local paper, for MNDot to announce, they’ve reduced the number of cars during peak congestion by up to 1,000!

Furthermore, the app data would show how many have switched and the initial process could show the remaining demand. If even semi-successful, this data could prove that spending transportation dollars on cycling can have a direct effect on reducing congestion. Future programs could save money by aligning with eBike manufacturers and even partnering with clothing and bike repair shops for eligible reimbursement.

Even if the test failed to cause significant numbers to switch from driving to biking, even semi-regularly; a $10 or $20 million loss is nothing compared to many other road budget gaffes. Worst case scenario, I’d imagine we would see at least a few hundred realize the programs ideals.

Certainly, there are those, who would say a program like this could buy significantly more bikes and reduce costs by using traditional bikes instead of eBikes. I would argue, most people who would be candidates already own traditional bikes. They’re sitting in their garage or basement.

What do you think? 

8 thoughts on “#eBikeThoughts: Battling Congestion with eBikes

  1. Ben Osa

    Can you please expand upon this statement:

    “While there are exceptions, my personal belief is an eBike worth purchasing, for a dedicated commute, should cost about $3,000 to $3,500.”

    I’ve seen these bikes priced as low as $1,000 on a reputable website online (one of which that I’ve personally bought a new bike (non-electric) from in the past). The specs seem ok with 20-30 mile range and up to 20mph.

    This price point seems more attainable than the 3X price point you’re recommending as the price to entry. If somebody is afraid that they won’t like the new ride, they’re out $3K.

    I’m pro E-Bike but at the $3K price point, adoption will be a hard hurdle for most people to cross.

    1. James Kohls Post author

      The first article I posted here was 3,000+ words on my thoughts on what makes a good eBike purchase. In that I did state that I felt $1500+ is reasonable. For this article, speaking purely for car-replacement commuting purposes, my recommendation would be a purpose built (not just battery and motor kit bolted on a frame) with good warranty and service support, which tends to be limited to local dealers vs online deals.

      Also, an integral part of this the thought experiment is focused on the service aspect. It’s difficult to get service, locally, for internet purchased bikes—especially if they use electric/electrical components the local retailer isn’t familiar with.

      My ebike article: https://streets.mn/2019/02/27/ebikethoughts-electric-assist-bicycles/

  2. Ben Osa

    James, that post is very detailed! Thanks for writing it up and sharing. I’ll be passing it along to my friend whose mother is looking into possibly acquiring an E-Bike for recreation purposes.

  3. Russ Booth

    With enough lightweight critical mass, eventually people who still drive 2 ton lethal weapons might need to choose from a few separated roadways that are designated just for them. I hope those roadways would get them somewhere near to their destinations.

  4. Karen Nelson

    Any investment into ebikes will have much bigger return for us than any investment we are making for cars.

    Every trip we convert to a bike helps in so many ways, less road congestion, less pollution, less climate ruing emissions, far less space needed for parking so much more efficient land use, less pavement (less width, less thickness), less crash dangers to others.

    Every increment towards more bking is a great improvement. Getting someone out of their car for 10 percent of their trips. Getting someone biking for errands and fun to start bikign to work most days. Getting a family with kids down from two cars to one. Getting a summer bike commuter biking during winter….

    As James shows in this article, expanding biking via ebike subsidies (in conjunction with improved bike infrastructure) is cheap way to get great benefits.

    Near where I work in Oakdale, MN, Washington Co is redoing one dangerous interchange between Hadley and Highway 36, making the intersection safer by putting in overpass, traffic circles, at a cost of $22 million, some of the funding sources: $7 million from Fed govt, $5 million from MN DOT, $1 million from DNR for Gateway Trail improvements, $2 million in land donated by Fleet Farm.

    This is ONE interchange off of one highway, not in one of our bigger cities, not anywhere near top volume highway/freeway.

    What could we accomplish in terms of expanding biking with ebikes, if we could get $20 million from Fed and state sources and a $2 million land donations for bike infrastructure from a private business?

    1. Karen Nelson

      Having caught the ebike bug, and seeing how it transforms many people into dedicated bikers, and how much people love ebikes once they try them, I keep thinking about how to just get more people on one for a day or two. I know that is enough to convert so many people, they are compelling.

      I think we need to keep trying and innovating new ways to get people to take a test rides, make loaner ebikes available…

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