Thursday, July 08, 2021

Free e-bikes for all?

Writing on Greater Auckland, David Slack presents A Proposal of Preposterous Audacity: inspired by Auckland's free public transport day, he suggests going a step further, with free e-bikes for all!

Just imagine for a moment what that might look like if every single person in the country had an e-bike and they all started biking.

Imagine, if you will, streets so full of e-bikes you’d think you were in Amsterdam. Only you’re not on a bike by a canal now, Dr Ropata, you’re in Palmerston North or Hamilton or Ashburton.

What I see is a country full of e-bikes. I’m not saying imagine a few more, I’m saying imagine if every single person had one.

My modest proposal is a free e-bike for every single person who wants one. Just like free public transport in Auckland: you do it, you stand back, and you see what happens.

Obviously, we'd need a lot of bikes - 3 million or so, at his guess. And since we need that many, we might as well build them here, to try and get the costs down (and create jobs). The payoff would be actually driving the mode-shift required to meet our climate change goals. 50% of Auckland's current morning commute journeys are 3-6 minutes - an easy walk or bike - while 75% are under 12 minutes, which is easy for e-bikes.

But would it work? Noodling around with the Auckland transport emissions calculator, eliminating 50% of trips (which would be the massive success story) saves ~1.7 million tons of carbon a year (caveat: this isn't exact, but the calculator doesn't go up to "50% cycling", and its probably close enough for a ballpark exercise like this). At the government's internal carbon price of $150/ton, that's $255 million a year. Or about a ten-year payoff period, assuming Auckland needs ~1.2 million e-bikes. Or we can put it another way: Auckland is currently spending more than $4.4 billion on the City Rail Link. For that, there's an expected reduction in emissions of just 30,000 tons. We could give free e-bikes to everyone in Auckland who wanted one for half that much, and still be ahead on emissions (and $/ton) if it merely tripled cycle usage. If it increased cycling use to Copenhagen-levels - which I think everyone would consider a wild success - it would save 12 times more emissions for half the price.

(Of course, promoting cycling requires more than just free bikes - you also need safe places to ride them, where you're not going to be smashed flat by some hoon in a ute. The good news is that "temporary" cycle infrastructure - seizing roads with planter-boxes - is actually cheap. And if the aim is to shift 10% or 50% of trips to that mode, then giving it 10% or 50% of the existing infrastructure to use seems eminently reasonable. Or we can build more purpose-built cycleways. Obviously, we should do both. I'm also not suggesting that we kill the City Rail Link; rather, that we should be looking at that to scale our investment in mode-shifting. Because that's where the huge emissions payoffs are).

Of course, we don't need to start big. Look at that "Copenhagen-level cycling" goal. That would save Auckland 400,000 tons of carbon a year - or $60 million to the government. For that budget, you could start, and then scale up, a free micromobility service, with free-to-use e-bikes and charging docks everywhere. Of course, you'd also need Limers to maintain them and collect the strays (an expense you don't need to care about when you just give people stuff). Make it easy, make it convenient, make it ubiquitous, and above all make it free, and (as seen with free public transport day) people will follow. Will it get all the way to Copenhagen cycle-utopia? I think it would be a hell of a good start. We could call them "people's bikes". And obviously, paint them red.