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The joyful and planet-friendly mobility of e-bikes

Electric cars have their place. But when it comes to reducing emissions from transportation, electric bikes offer a far better value. Plus, they’re ridiculously fun.

An e-bike, seen in Key Biscayne, Fla., in 2021.Scott McIntyre/NYT

The Orange Line was recently shut down for a month, now a chunk of the Green Line is closed, and parts of the Red Line are next. Gas is still expensive, and congestion and the scarcity of parking are ever-present annoyances. It is time to give e-bikes a try.

Who is an e-bike good for? People who live near a daunting hill, who have a commute that could be possible by bike but just seems too far, who think their knees or heart or physical skill makes cycling impossible, who don’t have a driver’s license or a car, who have young kids to bring around on errands, or who want to pass cars caught in traffic and park right in front of their destination.

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An e-bike is a bicycle with a motor that boosts the pedaling rider up to a maximum of 20 miles per hour, which is pretty close to the cruising speeds of the athletic spandex crowd on their regular bikes, and faster than the 8 to 12 miles per hour cycling speeds produced by most of us.

This summer in Boston we had 19 days over 90 degrees. It didn’t keep me from biking — e-bike riders don’t have to get sweaty. The wind is always in my hair, and I can choose my exertion level. Side benefits: I’ve found so much good stuff laid out by neighbors for anyone to take, shouted hello to friends I see en route, stumbled across restaurants I want to try and good places to pick berries when the time is right. Electric bicycling also makes me feel like a champion athlete when I go up a hill. Every time I go out, the trip leaves me in a good mood — if I don’t have any near misses with cars (more about this later). Surveys show that bicycling is the happiest way to travel.

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Got kids? My daughter who lives in upstate New York takes her 4- and 1-year-old children on her electric cargo bike — not everywhere but to the library, swimming holes, and an ice cream store within 10 (or sometimes 20) miles of her home.

I’m not saying that e-bikes are suitable for every single trip (although 52 percent of all trips in the United States are less than 3 miles, according to the US Department of Transportation). But few methods of transportation combine freedom, autonomy, low cost, and joy the way e-bikes do.

In addition to joyful mobility, e-bikes provide economical mobility: the potential to drop or skip the purchase of a car and thus save money on gas or transit. Transportation consumes 32 percent of after-tax income for the poorest 20 percent of us; according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average across all households is 15 percent. In Cambridge, where I live, two-thirds of low-income households and one-third of all households don’t have access to a personal car, according to census data provided to me by the city.

Common e-bikes cost between $1,000 and $5,000 — much less than most cars, but still out of reach for many people. Happily, the Massachusetts Legislature just allocated $1 million for an e-bike rebate program: $750 for low-income buyers and $500 for everyone else. The costs of maintenance and recharging the portable batteries on e-bikes are minimal.

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Justin Grimes of Landry's Bicycles in Newton offered test rides on electric bikes last April.Taylor Coester

E-bikes are not going to be a flash-on-the-road trend, like Segways or kick scooters. Sales have been close to doubling year over year since 2018. In fact, the Light Electric Vehicle Association, which monitors import volumes, says that the most popular electric vehicle sold in the United States this year will be the e-bike (790,000 projected) rather than the electric car (652,000 projected).

But for e-bikes to reach their potential and appeal to many more people, we really have to focus on safety. A staggering 47,000 bicyclists are injured in roadway crashes annually. Over the past decade, bicyclist fatalities in the United States have increased by 50 percent, from 621 in 2010 to 932 in 2020.

We’ve spent the last hundred years building a transportation infrastructure suited to the needs of personal cars. Now it’s time for government at all levels to provide convenient alternatives. The infrastructure that makes cyclists most comfortable — and safe! — is separated bike lanes on busy or high-speed roads. Depending on where you live, this separation might be a cement curb, stanchions, or a grassy strip.

Mayor Michelle Wu plans to expand bike routes in Boston so that half of all residents are no more than a three-minute walk from one. The city’s plans recognize the practical purpose of such a network in connecting people to jobs and life essentials: grocery stores, libraries, schools, parks, and community health centers. Cities and towns across the state should set similar goals to provide safe routes to essential places for cyclists of all ages and abilities.

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Safe infrastructure is critical, but the tragic increases in pedestrian and bike fatalities have two sources: distracted drivers and the popularity of ever-heavier vehicles with high front grilles that are unforgiving to humans who come in contact with them. E-bikes are programmed not to boost riders past 20 miles per hour, and we need new cars to have similarly automated controls that would kick in wherever speed limits are 30 miles an hour or less. Speeding fines should also reflect actual risk, with fines increasing based on the weight of the vehicle and the speed above the limit. A speeding 3-ton vehicle causes a lot more damage than one half the weight.

Meanwhile, e-bike trials and cycling instruction should be made available to everyone. The City of Boston offers free bike lessons, and Oakland, Calif., has just committed $1 million to create an e-bike lending program. These need to become the norm, because there is one last enormous benefit: the climate.

E-bike incentives are the most cost-effective vehicle subsidy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, ahead of incentives for battery-electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles.

Electric bikes require about 1/100th of the nickel, cobalt, lithium, and electricity needed for an electric car. Or put another way: We can produce 100 e-bikes with the resources it takes to make one sedan EV. Politicians, manufacturers, and environmentalists are rightly raising alarms about the political, social, and environmental costs of sourcing the materials required to electrify the world’s billion and a half gas- and diesel-powered vehicles. Instead of a mass push to electrify private cars, we should be making a mass push to switch to e-bikes (and mass transit) wherever it makes sense.

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So my challenge to you is to go try an e-bike this fall. As my grandson says, “Can we pleeeease go by bike?”

Robin Chase is co-founder and former CEO of Zipcar and a former member of the board of directors of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.