Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom. This editorial was written on behalf of the board by Star Tribune Opinion intern Noor Adwan, a 2023 graduate of the University of Minnesota.
E-bikes: They're undoubtedly better for the environment than cars, and more accessible to people with disabilities than standard bikes. But Dorian Grilley, executive director of Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota, wants folks to know one more thing about e-bikes: They're simply fun.
"I'm 65, and a lot of my friends are 60 to 70 years old," Grilley said. "A lot of them have purchased e-bikes, and it makes them smile. It puts the fun back into bicycling for a lot of people."
The modest $4 million e-bike rebate program, part of a $1.3 billion transportation deal signed last month by Gov. Tim Walz, would make this fun more accessible to both metro commuters and riders in Greater Minnesota when it takes effect next summer. What is arguably the biggest barrier to entry to e-bicycling is the price point — e-bikes can easily go for $1,000–$2,000.
The rebates would scale based on applicants' income: Applicants who make less than $25,000 annually, or those married filing jointly who make less than $50,000, would receive a rebate of 75% of the value of the e-bike and accessories, maxing out at $1,500. Applicants making more would qualify for rebate amounts of 50–74%.
And fun is far from trivial. Exclusively measuring our commutes in terms of speed, efficiency or congestion level often causes us to overlook the human experience, said Yingling Fan, a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Minnesota.
"I think those measurements are really narrowly defined," Fan told an editorial writer. "Human experience is extremely important because your experience, for example, commuting in the morning could affect your happiness levels throughout the day."
One of Fan's recent projects is the Transportation Happiness Map, which visualizes the emotional experiences of various types of commuters — from car users to bikers to walkers — across the Twin Cities metro area. One of her major findings? Out of all types of commuters in the metro, bikers were the happiest.
While the pedal-assist technology offered by an e-bike allows cyclists to perform less physical activity than those using standard bikes, they're still being more active than they would be if they were driving. That physical activity component, Fan said, plays a part in happiness.
As does being outside.
"The experience you get from biking, in terms of interacting with nature as well as interacting with people, is very different from the view you get from driving — through tinted glass windows," she said.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, fewer than 0.5% of American workers over 16 used a bike to get to work in 2021. In Minneapolis, that number is closer to 2%. Adam Olson, manager at Freewheel Bike in Cedar-Riverside, said he's heartened by the recent explosion in popularity of e-bikes. He hopes it encourages more folks to ride.
Olson said he's witnessed firsthand the high level of community interest in the rebate program. "The second word got out, we had people calling," he said.
Grilley is concerned that the increased demand may not be met by the $4 million program, of which half is earmarked for 2024 and the other 2025. When the city of Denver, which kicked off a national trend by providing $4.8 million in e-bike rebates in 2022, offered a new round of rebates in February, they were exhausted in just 20 minutes.
State Rep. Lucy Rehm, DFL-Chanhassen, the author of Minnesota's bill, said a future extension of the rebate program is entirely possible, and she hopes to discuss it with the House Transportation and Finance Policy committee in the coming months.
If this program is as successful as it seems it will be, expanding and continuing the e-bike rebate program after 2025 may be a straightforward way to lower Minnesota emissions.
In 2021, 29% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions came from transportation, accounting for more emissions than any other category. The majority of those emissions were caused by "light-duty" vehicles — including passenger cars.
In a world where reducing our greenhouse gas emissions is of paramount importance, any effort that increases excitement for and accessibility of greener transportation options is welcome. However, simply making these options available isn't enough — to encourage behavior shifts on a greater scale, being green should be both hassle-free and enjoyable.
"People do things because it's convenient, or it's fun," Grilley said.
And, while incentivizing e-biking has indisputable environmental benefits, this program's potential to positively impact Minnesotans' mental well-being should also be recognized — something Rehm and Grilley both noted.
"It's going to put a lot of smiles on people's faces," Grilley said.