Melinda McGoldrick had just finished up her day at City Hall, and hopped onto her bulky, cargo-style e-bike – with two now-empty kid seats – at a corner in downtown Boise.
It was a pleasant fall afternoon – Halloween day – but that morning was a different story.
“I’ve got a sweater, I’ve got a scarf, I’ve got gloves,” she said. “I had like an earmuff situation this morning.”
During the pandemic, she and her husband dropped to one car. But as life returned to normal – and with a second child to juggle – one car wasn’t going to cut it.
“But we did not want to buy another vehicle,” she said.
With a shared passion for doing what they can to lessen climate change’s impact, the McGoldricks opted for an e-bike in May.
The first stop that afternoon was the downtown YMCA, where her six-year-old son Theo was in after school care. Theo, who had dressed as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Donatello, piled into the bike’s rear seat.
“Buddy you only brought one glove home,” Melinda said.
“Wait what?!?” Theo responded. “AGH!!”
“So we’ll have to look for your other glove at school. That’s okay,” Melinda consoled. “You can have one warm hand and one not as warm hand.”
Helmeted and half-gloved, Theo sat back as Melinda sped onward toward two-year-old Nora’s daycare. With her two young children as regular passengers, Melinda said safety is paramount.
“We’ve tried to prioritize the places where there are dedicated bike lanes, and kind of plan our route around that,” she said. “So it’s usually a different way of going into work than coming home.”
Melinda parked in front of the daycare entrance and ran in for Nora. While waiting, Theo shared one of his favorite things about cruising around on the e-bike.
“You get to feel the breeze,” he said, adding that the cold air that morning was a challenge.
“Not so good,” he recalled. “It feels like my fingers just had a quarter left to go until they were frozen.”
At daycare, Nora had gotten a pair of silly glasses, and a sibling squabble broke out over them.
“That’s my glasses, THAT’S MY GLASSES!” Nora cried.
But with an “everybody calm down” Melinda defused the situation, and the trio was off on the home stretch.
The three kept their eyes open for dogs, always a highlight for Nora.
“Look Nora! A doggy in a costume!” Melinda said.
“That’s a fluffy doggy!”
That very day, Melinda said the bike crossed the 800-mile mark, the vast majority of which would have been driving before. A strong majority of car trips in the U.S. are less than six miles, like Melinda’s after-work route.
“E-bikes are in the US … the best selling type of electric vehicle, and I stress they are an electric vehicle,” said David Zipper, a visiting fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School who studies urban transportation. “They can do a lot of the same things that a car can. And in the US for the last several years, electric bikes have been outselling electric cars. Kind of astounding.”
He said the rising costs of buying and owning a car explains some of the increased demand. Beyond the rising relative affordability, e-bikes are also much easier to park, and mean fresh air and exercise for users. But coupled with enough hauling power to carry groceries and kids – even uphill – Zipper said they’re car replacers in a way that regular bikes can be, but are “probably less likely to be.”
And then there are the environmental benefits: accounting for manufacturing, e-bike greenhouse gas emissions are substantially lower than cars. Even compared to electric cars, e-bike batteries require much less energy to charge, and a small fraction of the lithium and other environmentally damaging mined inputs to make.
“So you add that up, and an electric bike is much better for the planet than any kind of car, including an electric one,” Zipper said.
For local transportation systems, Zipper said e-bikes are also a more efficient use of limited space. Because of their many potential benefits, states and cities across the country have implemented rebate programs to incentivize their purchase. Most are outside the Mountain West and Idaho has none. But Colorado – with over a dozen active programs, including a statewide one – is ahead of the curve in the region, according to an online tracker.
Mike Salisbury is with Denver’s climate and sustainability office, and has been heavily involved in the city’s program, which is funded by a voter-approved sales tax to fund climate and resiliency efforts. He said it’s been more popular than they “ever imagined.”
In the most recent round, the 1,100 vouchers available were gone in just seven minutes, according to Forbes.
“We’ve had over 7,000 people purchase an e-bike through the program over the last year and a half,” Salisbury said.
While far cheaper than a car, e-bikes can cost a couple thousand dollars. To make it equitable, Salisbury explained that all Denver residents qualify for $300 towards an e-bike, and $1,200 for those who meet income requirements. Program statistics he shared show users are replacing 22 miles of driving and more than three car trips per week.
“The e-bike doesn’t need to be the perfect replacement for all car trips, but it can be a great replacement for a large majority of those car trips,” he said. “We don’t need to be waiting for a perfect solution, especially with the climate crisis… If we just replace, you know, 30% of vehicle trips, that’s a huge impact.”
“Every degree (of warming) matters, but then taking it down to individual level, every every ton of emissions that you can help avoid, every pound of emissions you can avoid is going to make a difference in the greater scheme of things,” he added. “And we as individuals have the ability to make impacts at that level.”
Really easy, and effective
Melinda and the kids slowed to a stop in their driveway, and her husband Ryan McGoldrick, with Conservation Voters of Idaho, was waiting.
“There you go Nora!” Melinda said as she lifted Nora from her seat.
“DADDY!” she yelled before running into Ryan’s arms.
With each year bringing new temperature records and extreme weather events, climate change figured prominently in the McGoldrick’s e-bike purchase.
“I am one of those people who believes that if you have the opportunity to do something about a problem, you should, even if it’s something small,” Melinda said. “And that’s kind of where an e-bike fits in.”
But the McGoldricks see relatively small decisions like theirs as interdependent with the system-level changes necessary to address climate change. Ryan pointed to recent Ada County efforts to add things like protected bike lanes and other safety improvements, which he said can make it easier for more people to ride.
“And then the more people that take advantage of those opportunities, the more that the government agencies can see that … people actually do want to get around the city this way,” he said.
Months into their experiment, they’re still committed, but now for more than environmental reasons: the kids love the adventure, and they love avoiding the many costs of car ownership.
“You know, we fill up our car with gas like once a month, maybe once every other month, if that, and even probably less during the summer,” Ryan said.
“It’s not going to answer the whole problem. It’s not a solution for everybody, but it’s something that our family found is actually really easy and effective,” Melinda said. “And something that I think we honestly just enjoy doing at the end of the day.”
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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