Would you swap your petrol-guzzler for a top-of-the-line electric bike?
That is the question being asked in several European nations where as much as $6000 is on offer to motorists who trade in their old, high-polluting vehicles for clean two-wheelers.
It’s also a question a growing number of transport experts say should be asked in Australia to hasten the country’s journey to its 2030 emissions-reduction target.
Without a significant move to “active travel” like cycling and walking, some experts say Australia’s transport emissions will continue to rise in a way electric vehicles alone can’t address.
In addition to an “e-bikes for clunkers” scheme, they recommend a national rebate for electric bicycles, state-based loan programs and extending tax cuts offered to electric cars to electric bikes.
Other researchers say it isn’t discounts that are needed to get commuters cycling but innovative policies like “bike libraries” and better routes to help travellers reach their favourite destinations on two wheels.
Calls for Australia to investigate a car-to-bike swap emerged at Sydney’s Batteries on Wheels conference this month, when Smart Energy Council senior advisor Gabrielle Kuiper asked about trading high-emission vehicles for low-emission alternatives.
“What if you could trade your family’s second or third old polluting vehicle and get up to $4000 for an electric bicycle?” she asked the crowd.
“This policy is now in place in several European countries, apparently working extraordinarily well.”
The most notable scheme of its kind is offered in France, called Le Plan Velo.
The scheme’s incentives have risen markedly since its 2018 launch, reaching a maximum subsidy of €4000 ($6,352) this year for lower-income households.
The program, similar to those offered in Lithuania and Finland, is designed to convert nine per cent of French motorists into bike riders by 2024 and cut carbon emissions.
Dr Kuiper said a similar scheme in Australia could also reduce pollution and deliver value for money compared to financial incentives for electric cars.
“It does seem a little inconsistent that we’re providing quite large subsidies for electric cars but nothing for electric bikes,” she said.
“As opposed to $40,000 for a new EV, you can get an electric bike for $4000. That would make it much more accessible.”
But even modest incentives are getting people on electric bikes, Australia Institute transport lead Audrey Quicke said.
Finland’s cash-for-clunkers program offered three incentives: $1500 towards an e-bike, a discount on an electric car or a public transport ticket.
Of the first 3200 applicants, 2000 people chose the e-bike saving.
“From a financial perspective that money goes much further towards an e-bike,” Ms Quicke said.
“It’s almost covering the whole thing, whereas it is only a small amount of an electric vehicle and you’re still having to pay a lot yourself.”
But she added there was an even bigger reason to encourage Australians to hop on their bikes: the country may not meet its current climate goal without them doing so.
Australia is targeting a 43 per cent reduction on 2005 emissions by 2030, but the carbon footprint of transport is still rising.
“Figures show while our emissions are projected to come down in some sectors, transport is certainly not one of them – they have been rising and they’re set to continue rising to around 2030,” Ms Quicke said.
“We need to pull out absolutely all the stops in order to bring those emissions down and electric vehicles by themselves are not going to do that.”
In its submission to the National Electric Vehicle Strategy consultation paper, the Australia Institute not only recommended e-bike subsidies but also a national bike subsidy scheme, electric bike loans from state and territory governments, and extending the tax cuts for electric cars to electric bikes.
“We have a genuine opportunity coming up in Australia right now for us to be including e-bikes within our electric vehicle strategy – not just thinking of electric vehicles as cars but all forms of transport,” Ms Quicke said.
We Ride Australia executive officer Peter Bourke said any policies to help Australians adopt e-bikes were likely to prove popular as sales continued to rise.
After just 9000 e-bike sales in 2017, Australians bought 75,000 electric bikes last year.
Their soaring popularity could be attributed to the burden they removed from cycling, Mr Bourke said.
We Ride research shows e-bike users embark on twice as many rides and ride twice as far as riders with standard bicycles.
“What e-bikes do is they flatten hills, they reduce the wind, they shorten journeys because people are more confident they can finish them and they’re not worried about running out of puff,” Mr Bourke said.
He said cargo electric bikes that could accommodate passengers, groceries or bulky items would also appeal to busy families looking for an alternative to a second car.
Climate Council advocacy head Jennifer Rayner said some households would not need financial assistance to add an e-bike to their transport options but simply more education or a test ride.
She points to the Canberra Bike Library program that lets residents borrow an e-bike for up to eight days.
“The (e-bike library) has been really successful because it’s pretty rare that you hear someone who gets off an e-bike and doesn’t say, ‘Wow, that was amazing, I had no idea it was so different … I’m converted’,” Dr Rayner said.
“It’s not always just incentives that are needed to encourage people to take up e-bikes but actually just giving them an opportunity to try them out and see how they work like any new technology.”
But Australian governments need to boost investments in infrastructure to support cycling, Dr Rayner said, particularly in linking existing resources.
“We can’t just say, ‘Hey, everybody should get an e-bike,’ without asking how easy and convenient the connections are,” she said.
“That’s where government has also has a really important role to play. It’s about thinking of it as a whole package of work rather than one single silver bullet.”