Getting Boston on board with e-bikes

Research shows city, state investments in 2-wheelers pay off

IT’S THE AGE of the e-bike — but Boston is behind the curve. 

By making biking easier, faster, and more sweat-free, electric bikes (e-bikes) have shown to be a hit. Americans bought nearly 500,000 in 2020, compared to less than half that number of electric automobiles (popularly referred to as electric vehicles, or EVs). “The popularity of e-bikes isn’t slowing down,” reported the New York Times recently. 

Taking note, cities and states around the country have rushed to get electrified two-wheelers on the streets. New York City introduced a fleet of 5,000 e-bikes to their system and is adding more. Chicago is building a fleet of more than 10,000. The District of Columbia has been expanding its number of e-bike shares for years. States and localities in Texas, Utah, and Colorado have offered economic incentives to purchase e-bikes, and Massachusetts will soon offer its own.

Yet in deep-blue Boston, a city recently ranked fourth worst in the world for traffic, there are no e-bikes offered in the bikeshare system and no public plans to introduce them. Why is that?

One reason is outdated laws. Until recently, Massachusetts was a national outlier in that it classified e-bikes as motorized vehicles, prohibiting them from bike paths and making public investment in them largely impossible. Fortunately, following years of advocacy, the state corrected that late last year, allowing e-bikes on the road.

A bigger reason for the holdup on e-bikes has been cost. Few would have expected the Baker administration to invest in a new e-bike program, but Boston has not been eager to invest in new programs, either. “Until there is concurrence on covering the reported extra operational expenses, we are unlikely to bring e-bikes into the system,” a BTD spokesperson told StreetsBlog

But cost need not be a barrier. Research I conducted at the Harvard Kennedy School with fellow graduate students Anusha Chitturi, Tom Fischer, and Akshay Marathe shows that a combination of city, state, and federal resources could support public investment in e-bikes and subsidies to encourage their use. 

Our research, conducted in partnership with the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics in Boston, analyzed the current Bluebikes contract and fee structure, information provided by the Bluebikes operating contractor (Lyft), and the actual costs paid by Washington D.C.’s system. Our model estimated that even if the city increased its base of subsidized bikeshare users to 6,500 over five years, which would be a remarkable achievement, the cost of subsidizing the full membership of subsidized riders would be about $9.6 million. When accounting for the investment in new e-bikes and related equipment, balanced by typical revenues the Bluebike system generates, the final cost of a publicly subsidized e-bike program for the Boston area would come to about $8.4 million across the first five years.

To put that number in perspective, the city of Boston’s Transportation Department budget is over $40 million annually, and the state subsidizes driving with a combination of $64 billion in annual public funds

Our research catalogs a variety of municipal, state, and federal resources that could be tapped to support e-bikeshare and public subsidies. Just to take one example, Boston has about $413 million in ARPA funds that must be allocated by the end of 2024. These funds include programs on carbon reduction, traffic reduction, and transportation infrastructure, all of which could be directed toward expanding bikeshare through the introduction and subsidy of e-bikes. For its part, the state has access to federal infrastructure funds that can be used for several carbon-reduction programs. 

A generous subsidy of e-bike rides would help address another key concern: equity. Because e-bikes cost more to operate than conventional bikes, many city bike share systems charge users more to ride them. Some city officials fear that this would price out lower-income bikeshare users and thus invest city funds in a program with disproportionate benefits to wealthier users. 

Under our model, any user in the low-income program could use e-bikes freely.  As far as we are aware, there is no city that offers such a generous subsidy program, and yet the cost would be well within reach for the city and state. 

To see how well public investment in e-bike programs work, consider Denver. The city offers residents $400 toward the purchase of e-bikes and $900 toward the purchase of e-cargo bikes. Nearly 5,000 residents have participated, with the majority of funds going toward low-income residents. Participants in the program have replaced car trips with e-bike trips more than three times per week. 

Meet the Author

Jonathan Timm

Manager in state and local government consulting practice, Guidehouse
Early data show that this kind of program can work in Massachusetts, too. A program in Worcester led by the advocacy group MassBike has found that once people get used to using e-bikes, they begin to use them for commuting and short trips — exactly the kinds of trips that are too often taken by car. This reflects national data showing that e-bikes are 1.7x more likely to be used than regular bike shares. 

The city of Boston and Massachusetts rightfully have set ambitious climate goals, but we are not on track to meet them. Gov. Maura Healey is entering office at an opportune moment: the legal barriers to e-bikes have been cleared, voters gave her a mandate to improve our state’s sustainability, and e-bikes are growing more popular. Throwing the weight of Beacon Hill behind a public e-bike share program would reduce traffic, cut emissions, and help ensure everyone in the city has a sustainable, safe, and enjoyable way to move about their community. Let’s get rolling. 

Jonathan Timm is a manager in the state and local government consulting practice at Guidehouse, where he focuses on transportation issues.  He received his master’s in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School in 2022.