You may have heard of Austin, Texas, as a hip cycling city, but it came to our attention in the world of e-bikes thanks to a robust rebate program from Austin Energy, the city-owned utility company. As we dove deeper into this rebate program, though, we found a network of e-bike, equity, and climate activists and enthusiasts working together to make Austin more accessible, equitable, and environmentally friendly for all.
What first grabbed our attention was the Austin Energy rebate program. Austin Energy customers are able to receive up to a $300 rebate on electric vehicles like e-bikes, scooters, and even e-motorcycles when they buy them from participating area retailers. Thus far the program has awarded about 2,000 rebates in 2021 and has experienced continued growth year after year. Clearly there is interest in the city of Austin in e-biking, but what is even more impressive is how thoroughly the city and its partners are supporting and cultivating this interest with outreach, education and infrastructure.
We spoke with Amy Atchley, senior lead of the EV equity program at Austin Energy, to learn more. “My team is electric vehicles in emerging tech and we really see micro-mobility as part of this,” says Atchley. “We are really working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” More trips by electric vehicles like e-bikes means fewer miles ridden in cars. For Atchley and her team, though, it is important to focus on more than just the citizens who have the capital to buy one of these vehicles.
Even with a rebate, e-bike purchase is out of reach for many Austin residents. So Austin Energy is working to educate and enable citizens with e-bike access in other ways. “We’ve done hundreds of e-bike demos within the community particularly, in our underserved communities or low income customers of Austin Energy,” says Atchley. “When they have access to e-bike share,” like Austin’s MetroBike system, “they really can have more miles available to them to get to a better job. It is about upward mobility.”
Austin Energy is also piloting programs to put electric vehicle chargers outside of multi-family homes and working with the Austin Energy Green Building division to create e-bike storage rooms in apartment buildings so that residents don’t have to carry their e-bikes to their apartments or worry about them being stolen. “We’re working with community stakeholders to bring in this infrastructure in a collaborative manner so that we are working on solutions together with the community,” says Atchley.
As a part of the city, rather than just a utility, Austin Energy is in the unique position to use its resources to improve the lives of all of its citizens. “The collaboration is about working with the community, with that direct feedback,” says Atchley. “It’s working with nonprofits. It’s working with private sector, public sector and everyone coming together to reach these goals.”
One of those partners is Austin’s docked bike share program, MetroBike. This system is a partnership of the City of Austin and Capital Metro. While the bike share program has existed for a few years, it is currently in the process of converting its 76 stations from conventional bikes to electric bikes. Currently there is one e-bike for every two conventional bikes.
The partnership allows the City of Austin to own the system and its assets as public transportation while relying on the private partnership to maintain and expand the system. “We want to make sure it’s useful to all the citizens, not just a certain portion of the population,” says Diego Martinez-Moncada, executive director of Austin’s MetroBike. “We want it geared towards commuters as well as all other individuals so that the citizens of Austin truly get the benefit of it and they can, ideally, leave their vehicle at home.”
Having a robust e-bike share program in the city allows car-free transportation to become a much more reasonable option for many of its citizens. While Martinez-Moncada says the conversion to e-bike opens up routes through areas often too hilly for conventional bikes, they are also great for filling in the gaps of last mile public transportation “We are working hand in hand with the City of Austin to make sure that somebody can get from the bus stop or the train station over to their final destination.”
And these systems are often more flexible than traditional public transport. “What this allows us to do is create the satellite systems that are a lot less expensive,” says Martinez-Moncada. “At the end of the day a bike lane is not some major construction project.” And for those citizens who are unbanked, the system is not closed to them. MetroBike has a program known as EZGo which allows qualifying citizens, who apply with the honor system, to go into an office and get a yearly membership for $5 even if they do not have a bank account.
The benefit of a public-private partnership in this system is that it does not rely on profit as its main motivator. Thus, MetroBike can expand with equity in mind rather than just economic gains. “We should be expanding with equitable locations so that everybody’s given an opportunity to participate in the system,” says Martinez-Moncada.
One of the largest issues to getting new riders in the system is making sure they feel safe. That’s why Austin has so many cycling advocacy groups like Bike Austin. This organization, along with other activists, was essential in promoting the 2014 Bicycle Master Plan, the 2018 Transportation Plan, and a 2020 effort that allocated nearly half a billion dollars to build bicycle infrastructure, including urban trails and protected bike facilities.
“We are really working to compel the city to recognize where the network has dangerous gaps,” says Hill Abell, a Bike Austin board member. “We need to focus on those dangerous gaps and fill those out with the protective facilities. That is going to make it feasible for people to use bikes as transportation.”
These efforts, combined with a pre-existing cycling culture, has enabled e-biking to blossom in the city of Austin. “Once you get somebody on a pedal assist bike they just go, ‘wow, this is so amazing’,” says Abell. “It’s such a game changer for people. Friends bring friends, and family members bring family members. We are in an explosion stage right now.”
Abell says Austin is seeing especially strong growth in two sectors of the population: those over 50 who haven’t ridden a bike in years but e-bikes allow them to get back into the sport, and those who are between 25 and 40 and looking to live downtown without a car. “We are just hearing from so many young people coming in and this is my form of transportation,” says Abell. Austin is establishing itself as one of the best cities for e-biking in America thanks to the commitment and collaboration of its transportation enthusiasts in all sectors. Whether you want to own an e-bike, learn how to ride an e-bike, or just take one out for the day, Austin is providing the funding, education and safe infrastructure to enable you to start pedaling.
What is particularly inspiring though is the community-wide effort to empower all of Austin’s citizens with the benefits of affordable and environmentally friendly transportation. “We have got to broaden the tent and the appeal for cycling because those people are out there and they’re riding bicycles but they’re not well represented in the community,” says Abell. And Austin is putting in the work to get there.