Free E-Bikes for Everyone!

In 1965, Luud Schimmelpennink, an anarchist and engineer in Amsterdam, rounded up some bicycles, painted them white and said anyone could use them under the condition that they never be locked. Schimmelpennink was part of Provo, a radical group that came up with social experiments to shake up the squares and draw the police into violent confrontations.

The White Bicycle Plan, as Schimmelpennink called it, went far beyond just a few free bikes. In a pamphlet Provo distributed throughout Amsterdam, the group wrote: “The asphalt terror of the motorized bourgeoisie has gone on long enough. Accident victims are human sacrifices offered up to the new authority to which the masses have surrendered: the automotive authority. Carbon monoxide is his stifling incense, his image has ruined canals and streets in their thousands.”

To remedy this, Schimmelpennink called for Amsterdam to purchase 10,000 bicycles a year for its citizens and to develop an electric-car-share program. The City Council rejected much of his vision at the time, but versions of the White Bicycle Plan proliferated throughout Europe for the next three decades and led to the development of the first real shared bike programs. Today, nearly every major city in the United States, China and Europe has one. Additionally, a small version of the White Bicycle Plan was temporarily offered in Amsterdam.

In that spirit, I am proposing my own very big idea, as I will do from time to time in this newsletter. I cannot promise they will be particularly sound, perfectly reasoned or even possible. But I hope they’ll provoke fun conversations.

Seriously, just give everyone a free e-bike

City governments should purchase an electronic bicycle for every resident over the age of 15 who wants one. They should also shut down a significant number of streets to be used only by bicycles and a small number of speed-regulated, municipal electric vehicles.

The Biden administration’s Build Back Better Act includes a $4.1 billion tax break for e-bike purchases. It would let you save 30 percent via a refundable tax credit capped at $900. That may help with some e-bike adoption, but tax credits can feel a bit abstract, and even with the discount, e-bikes, which typically run between $1,500 and $4,500, will still be out of the budgets of most Americans.

The Biden bill doesn’t go far enough. We need to get cars off the road quickly and as painlessly as possible, and widespread adoption of e-bikes would curtail a lot of the following problems:

  • Vehicles produce about a third of the air pollution in the United States.

  • Cities spend billions of dollars a year in taxpayer money to repair roads.

  • An estimated 6,721 pedestrians were hit and killed by vehicles in 2020.

  • The building of roads and highways in America has usually come at the expense of poor, minority communities, who then have to deal with increased pollution, displacement and literal barriers that restrict their movement.

  • The needs of drivers — for parking, wide streets, traffic enforcement — often take priority over other initiatives that might improve urban design and city planning.

Plus, it’s fun. You get some exercise, you can lug two small kids and a load of groceries up and down hills with minimal effort, and you can avoid the alienation that comes with sitting in your car.

By the way, I am not envisioning a world without cars. People will still need to go on longer trips, disabled people will still need to get around, and goods will still need to be delivered. Cars will be channeled through a few routes in each city. In keeping with Schimmelpennink’s vision, transportation within the bicycles-only areas will be handled by a fleet of electronic taxis that will travel at speeds below 25 miles per hour. As for deliveries, many package deliveries in the United States can be handled by cargo e-bikes, which can transport hundreds of pounds at a time.

Shutting down some streets for bikes is key not only for safety, but also because the more inconvenient driving becomes, the more people will start to consider other options. Available to them is a free-of-charge mode of transportation that will often be faster than sitting in traffic and having to find a parking spot.

I admit, there may be obstacles:

Revolt from drivers against any politician who voted for the plan.

This is likely to be the most pressing, pragmatic problem, but we’re in a climate emergency here. It’s time for bold, decisive action.

Many people who are disabled cannot ride e-bikes.

There are a few companies that do make e-bikes for disabled people. These models may not work for everyone, but again, there will still be electronic taxis. We should ensure that the plan is compliant with the American With Disabilities Act.

Everyone signs up for an e-bike and then doesn’t use it.

There is likely to be some waste. To minimize it, some cities might place conditions on their e-bike programs. For example, if you haven’t used your e-bike in six months, the city, which could theoretically track the mileage of each e-bike, could ask for it back. But I’m not overly concerned with this problem. Will some people schlep their free bike across state lines to sell it? Maybe, but that shouldn’t be an impediment to a big idea.

There are already cities like Portland, Ore., and New York where you can easily rent e-bikes, but we haven’t achieved a carless revolutions in those places.

We’re still in the early days of e-bike adoption. While many cities did, in fact, shut down roads during the pandemic, they didn’t do so at the scale I’m envisioning here. And owning your own e-bike, as I’m proposing, is a significant improvement. It takes away the hassle of having to get to a docking station and pay a fee each time you want to ride. And people who can’t afford to rent an e-bike for every trip can still have full access to one.

How do you transport your kids?

Each e-bike could have a free child seat option. These seats are safe and relatively cheap, and could be returned to the city once the child aged out of needing one. My wife and I take our young daughter to school quite regularly on our e-bike. Is this safe? I think so. The biggest threat to our commute, of course, comes from cars.

Everyone looks like a giant nerd on their e-bike, which means you have a city of giant nerds.

I have no solution to this problem.

What about rain, snow and extremely cold or hot weather?

It’s not really that difficult to ride a bike in the rain. As for snow, it’s not great to drive in it, either.

Not every city in America is the same. You could do this in Portland, Ore., maybe, but not in Houston or Los Angeles.

Which is why each city would create its own version of the plan. In cities like Los Angeles, where people are addicted to car culture, there may be a lot of resistance, of course. But these places also have horrible traffic problems. It could take just one single timesaving, pleasant and safe trip on an e-bike to persuade these people to stop joining the mess of cars on the 405 freeway.

So let’s get started

We need a few test cities. I propose my hometown, Berkeley, Calif., home to 121,000 residents; Iowa City; and Charleston, S.C. These are all places that have walkable areas but also a heavy dependence on cars. Three geographic areas will also give us more information on how weather will affect e-bike usage. I’ll focus on Berkeley, but if readers have other suggestions for test cities or if the residents of Iowa City or Charleston want to let me know why this definitely will or will not work there, please do.

Now, not everyone will opt into the program and not everyone is over the age of 15, but I want to think maximally, so let’s assume that 50,000 residents eventually decide to sign up for the free e-bike plan. The e-bike company Evelo reports that it costs $1,066.67 for it to manufacture one of its most popular models. This seems a bit high to me, but I want to err on the side of fiscal caution here.

That puts our e-bike-only bill for the city of Berkeley at just over $53 million, which may seem like a staggering amount of money, but is almost $25 million less than the city’s annual police budget. This could eventually be reduced, given the amount of time and resources police officers spend on traffic enforcement. That said, there will be sticker shock for this bill, but if local politicians think long-term, they will realize this program could eventually pay for itself.

There are all sorts of long-term ways cities could make money by getting cars off the road. They’d save on overall health care costs from a more fit public and see a decrease in emergency services for vehicle accidents. Repurposed parking lots could allow for more housing to be built and, therefore, an increase in tax revenue. For the sake of brevity, I want to focus on just one of these possibilities: road repair.

A report last year found that it would cost $328 million to fix Berkeley’s streets, an amount that would be drastically lowered in the future if there were simply fewer roads that allowed cars. Bikes do almost no damage to streets — some estimates say that it takes 17,059 bicycle trips to equal the damage caused by an average car.

Over time, savings on future road repairs alone could pay for a free e-bike plan in most cities and cover maintenance costs and the price of making roads more bike-friendly. When you factor in municipal budgets that could be reallocated, the cost concerns can be minimized.

If you don’t trust me, listen to an expert

I presented my idea to Eric Goldwyn, the program director of the Transportation and Land-Use Program at New York University’s Marron Institute. Eric and I have been friends since we were undergraduates and have spent much of the past 20 years talking about cities and their problems.

Goldwyn: So the first thing I’d say is that transportation enables access to jobs, housing, schools and opportunity. Anything we can do to expand people’s range of opportunities strikes me as worth thinking about.

There has been a lot of work done on how households without access to a car have many fewer opportunities than those with access to a car. There’s also some research on how families will bend over backward to afford a car because it is better, from their perspective, to take on debt, buy a clunker, and cycle in and out of car ownership than not have access to a car at all.

A program like this won’t solve every problem, but one can see the benefits of having a mode of transport that travels 15 miles an hour, or whatever, versus walking. So the e-bike still gives users way more access to all of the stuff a city/region has versus walking, which largely confines us to our immediate neighborhood.

There are also some critiques like, “Where do we get all of these raw materials for batteries?” and “How will the rules of the road change?”

But my basic thought is that it’s a good idea. We need to try different things if we are serious about shifting people out of cars. Electrifying the transportation fleet is unambiguously good. Reducing the deaths, injuries and damages associated with car crashes is good.

This kind of plan also allows for other things to happen around land use. In addition to allowing for more density, we can create a more inviting street if there aren’t cars zooming through them.

I was once a skeptic, too!

My last experience with bicycle commuting — from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to Times Square — ended in a crash that tore up my leg. This accident, paired with horror stories from cyclists I know, put an end to my biking days. But then I saw a tweet from my colleague Jamelle Bouie in which he shared a photo of his e-bike loaded with groceries. This appealed to me during the pandemic because I had been feeling a bit trapped and wanting to spend as much time outdoors as possible. So I went out and bought my own e-bike.

After about a year, I will report that while the e-bike has not entirely replaced the need for a car, my wife and I use it quite regularly. The rides I take open up the city and have made me feel less confined by it. Not being chained to a car or the pickup and drop-off area when I take my daughter to school allows me to have better conversations with fellow parents and take my time dropping her off. These benefits should be familiar to anyone who mostly gets around by bicycle, but the specific gift of an e-bike is that it takes away the need for people to be physically fit or even particularly motivated to exercise. If we can’t even envision cities that provide free, fun forms of personal transportation, we may just lack the imagination to address climate change.

Have feedback? Send a note to [email protected].

Jay Caspian Kang (@jaycaspiankang), a writer for Opinion and The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Loneliest Americans.”

Related Articles

Back to top button