E-bike incentives lead to significant decline in car use, UBC study says
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May 29, 2024
Josh Kozelj

Saanich, B.C., residents who bought an e-bike with a rebate cut their auto travel an average 49 kilometres per week. A “remarkable” shift according to UBC researcher Alex Bigazzi

Incentives for purchasing e-bikes can be more impactful in reducing carbon emissions than electric vehicle rebates, according to the researchers of a new University of British Columbia study.

Saanich, B.C., residents who bought an e-bike with a rebate cut their auto travel by an average of 49 kilometres per week. It’s a “remarkable” shift according to UBC researcher Alex Bigazzi

Incentives for purchasing e-bikes can be more impactful in reducing carbon emissions than electric vehicle rebates. This is according to the researchers of a new University of British Columbia study.

The study was released in March. It found residents of Saanich, B.C. — a suburb of Victoria — who took part in a city-led e-bike incentive program in 2021/2022 reduced their automobile use by an average 49 kilometres per week.

Almost 400 Saanich residents participated in the program. They received rebates for e-bike purchases of $350, $800 or $1,600, depending on their income level.

For the study, researchers looked at bike use by 164 incentive program participants in comparison to a control group of non-incentivized purchasers of conventional or electric bikes in the region.

They found the incentive program attracted many new or marginal e-bike purchasers and purchasers have high satisfaction with their new e-bikes. They used them regularly, three to four days per week, travelling anywhere between 30 to 70 kilometres in that span.

Large shifts in behaviour

“You don’t [normally] see large shifts in travel behaviour, so to see that amount was quite remarkable,” says Alex Bigazzi, lead author of the study and associate professor in UBC’s department of civil engineering.

His conclusion: “Incentive programs can be really effective in enabling mode shift.”

By reducing the volume of cars on the road, the study reports e-bike incentives also have a positive environmental impact.

Program participants reduced their carbon footprint by an average of 16 kilograms per week. This leads Bigazzi to believe that e-bike incentives are more efficient than B.C.’s electric car rebate program.

“They were cost effective in terms of CO2 reduction per dollar invested, by our estimates, more cost effective than the provincial car incentives,” Bigazzi says.

“We recommend more places consider shifting a portion of their climate mitigation dollars from electric car incentives to electric bike incentives.”

He adds that e-bikes offer reduced travel costs and have health benefits for residents.

Turning e-bike km to incentives data

The upfront cost of an e-bike in Canada can range anywhere from a few hundred dollars to $10,000.

Despite the growing popularity of e-bikes across the country, there is a lack of research on how incentives impact emissions and travel habits. So, a major part of the study was designed to quantify how, if at all, incentives reduce emissions or encourage people to drive automobiles less.

“We lacked empirical evidence for the effects on purchases and mode shift,” Bigazzi said.

To remedy, the UBC researchers compared people who received an e-bike rebate to a 238-member control group that did not. They compared the behaviour of both groups before and after their purchases, then used a survey to ask them what mode of transportation they would prefer to take on a hypothetical trip.

“Using all that information, we can look at how their behaviour changed and contrast that with what they were doing before and compare that with other people who didn’t receive incentives,” Bigazzi says.

Relevance for other communities

Following the success from the pilot program, Saanich offered more incentives to residents in 2023. The province also launched its own e-bike rebate program last year.

But Bigazzi cautions that the results may not be applicable to all communities.

Saanich, for instance, has solid bike infrastructure: rail trails, touring routes and relatively quiet neighbourhood streets. However, there is no data that suggests how much cycling infrastructure will encourage people to ride more.

“We can’t say exactly what is the minimum threshold for cycling infrastructure we need for people to feasibly use e-bikes,” Bigazzi says.

And the people who received rebates are more likely to be interested in cycling, Bigazzi said. The results may not be the same for people with limited interest in biking.

“It’s not like if you give random people e-bikes you are going to see that kind of mode shift,” he says.

But Bigazzi does believe that communities should create favourable incentives to low-income households. This is the subset of people in the Saanich study that shifted their travel behaviour most after buying an e-bike.

Because those households are more financially constrained, they have less disposable income to purchase an e-bike and may be more inclined to ride it.

“It makes the program more cost effective, in addition to providing equity benefits,” Bigazzi said.

Provincial e-bike incentives research next

The UBC research team is currently in the middle of studying B.C.’s province-wide e-bike incentive program. They are using similar methods from the Saanich study to see whether there are similar results in different pockets of the province.

“That will help us understand how the effects vary by geography, terrain, climate and different types of infrastructure,” Bigazzi says.

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