There are cities across America that come to mind when one thinks of “biking cities”: Portland, Austin, Minneapolis. But what about when we start to think about “e-biking cities”? The needs are different—but how different? To find some of the best e-biking cities in America, we started looking for cities that put their money where their mouth is, offering a subsidy for e-bike purchase. Today we are focusing on efforts to expand e-biking in one of those cities: Burlington, Vermont.
To start, we wanted to dive more into the program that first grabbed our attention, the $200 rebate for new e-bike purchases available to Burlington residents. To learn more, we spoke with Jonathon Weber, manager of the Complete Streets program at Local Motion, an active transportation and safe streets advocacy organization operating in Burlington and across the state of Vermont.
Local Motion works with the Burlington Electric Department to execute the rebate system. Customers need to prove they live in Burlington and then $200 is taken off the price of a new e-bike at a Burlington area bike retailer. “It is a point of sale rebate,” says Weber. “You don’t have to wait for it in the mail, it comes right off the purchase price.” But not every potential e-biker is prepared to spend more than $1,000 on a new bike, so Local Motion also has programs to show potential users what life with an e-bike could look like before they buy.
“Thirty minutes on an e-bike doesn’t help you figure out how it is going to work for you and your household, all of the other elements,” says Weber. So Local Motion created a system to let people really see how they’d fit in their lives. “We have a fleet of seven bikes that are available to check out for a week at a time. They can take the e-bike home, get groceries on it, see how charging works, take their kids to school, have it for a weekend.”
The program was so successful that Local Motion chose to expand it beyond the city limits of Burlington. “We also have a traveling e-bike lending library,” says Weber. “That library is a couple of bikes that travel around the state to various towns.” The program is hosted in each town by a library, recreation department or bike shop, and hopes to encourage e-bike riding throughout the state. And thankfully, through broader e-bike subsidy programs through three other Vermont power companies, many of these library lenders are eligible for a subsidy in their own town.
E-Bikes for Low Income Residents
Even still, moving from trying out an e-bike to buying an e-bike is a financial decision many residents of Burlington, in particular the traditionally underserved, can’t afford. That’s where the nonprofit bike shop Old Spokes Home works with the community. “Most of our customers are using these bikes to get around town to get to stores to get to work to get to school,” says Old Spokes Home executive director Laura Jacoby.
Old Spokes Home has long run a program, Everybody Bikes, to help underserved community members access transportation with a bike. “People whose incomes qualify will get subsidized prices on bicycles,” says Jacoby. “For our conventional bike that is basically 50 percent off any bike under $300.” And the program is successful; the demand is there. Everybody Bikes helps about 1,700 customers a year.
In e-bikes, Old Spokes Home saw a means to better improve the accessibility and equity of transportation options in Burlington, especially for those who don’t own a car, “We just wanted to figure out how we could expand that option for people who, for whatever reason, a conventional bike failed to serve them well,” says Jacoby. So, Old Spokes Home acquired a allowing it to sell e-bikes at cost to those who qualified for Everybody Bikes. This significantly decreased the price, and has increased demand.
Even at cost, and after applying the $200 rebate, the bikes are still prohibitively expensive for many. That’s why Old Spokes Home established an opportunity with Opportunities Credit Union. “If your credit rate isn’t good or you have no credit history you can get a no interest loan from Opportunities Credit Union to pay for the purchase of the bicycle, as long as you have a job,” says Jacoby. Some program members have qualified for the loan with a part time job, and with the help of more dependable transportation have been able to turn it into a full time job.
Creating More Cycling Advocates
The cycling community is also looking for ways to create more e-bike users and advocates, and one of the best ways to make people advocates is to get them on an e-bike. That’s why community members are excited for the change to Burlington’s bike share program. This spring, the conventional bicycles will be replaced by a fleet of electric Bolt e-bikes. “It’s a really low barrier to try it,” says Jacoby. The 200 bikes will completely replace the conventional fleet and be available across the city, college campus and neighboring towns.
More people on bikes means more people advocating for accessibility and infrastructure, which is an area advocates, and the city’s walking and biking master plan, agree could improve. While many residents and tourists use the popular Burlington Bike Path, a 7.6-mile out and back path that hugs Lake Champlain, currently only about 12 percent of streets in the city have a dedicated bike lane.
The city is undergoing change and recent projects have limited lanes of travel and parking in favor of bike lanes at popular and dangerous intersections, and the city plans to continue this infrastructure expansion. And it works for all bikers. “There is a notion that people on e-bikes go a lot faster than people who ride regular bikes,” says Jonathon Weber. “Most of the people just need a little bit of help to go the speed plenty of people can go on a normal bike. That user just needs traditional bike infrastructure.”
Working Towards Year-Round Cycling, Even in the Snow
Being a city in Vermont, there is also the issue of snow. “E-bikes do make riding in the winter easier,” says Weber. “If there’s a little bit of snow on the ground you’ve got that extra power to keep moving through it.”
But snow removal on the roads often means pushing snow into the bike lane, or not clearing snow from the bike lane at all. And that affects more than just recreational riders. “We frankly don’t do a great job of getting the snow out of bike lanes,” says Jacoby. “We have to prioritize bike path clearing as much as car road clearing. I commute by bike, as many people do all through the winter.” A clear bike lane means the ability to get to work, to live your life, all year round.
For the continued success of biking and the benefits it can bring, to all in a city, the commitment needs to continue. Advocates need to speak up, more people need to get on bikes and infrastructure needs to be safe and accessible to all. “It’s always the debate,” says Jacoby. “Are we not seeing the bicycle riders because we don’t have the infrastructure, or we don’t have any bike riders? [A lack of proper infrastructure] means people are not going to the grocery store, they’re not going to the doctor, their kids aren’t going to an after school job or sports. That’s what feeds generational poverty—you can’t get out of it if you literally can’t get out of it.”
So, what does it mean to be a good e-biking city? For Burlington, it means a greater access to e-bikes for all of its citizens, safer streets to ride them on and a commitment to making life without a car possible for all.