Pamela Hill lives in Broadway Heights, a hilly and rural San Diego neighborhood where it isn’t easy to ride a bike. Mobility issues she’s faced have made it even more difficult. But two years ago, she joined a “loan to own” e-bike program that offered a solution. She was soon riding regularly, a few miles for errands and as much as 15 miles to travel downtown.
“The chances of me buying an e-bike myself were slim to none,” she says. But securing one through the program completely changed the way she travels through the city: “I ended up riding at least 1,400 miles this year.”
The program that provided Hill her e-bike is Pedal Ahead, a San Diego-based nonprofit and e-bike incentive program launched in 2020. Low-income participants access e-bikes at no initial cost, while agreeing to ride an average of five miles a day, track and share rides for a study, and secure their own bike insurance. If the participants successfully complete the program after two years, they own the bike.
Since its inception, the organization distributed over 400 bicycles across San Diego County, amounting to over 270,000 bicycle miles. Last month, the program announced it would expand statewide as part of a $10 million e-bike incentives program overseen by the California Air Resources Board. “We have a proof of concept, we’ve seen results on multiple levels, and we know there’s more we can do with our model that can be replicated throughout the state,” says Pedal Ahead founder Ed Clancy.
San Diego is part of a growing group of cities exploring how to subsidize e-bike services for low-income families — Portland, Denver and New York City all launched pilots last year. Buffalo is collecting enough e-bikes together to launch mini-shared micromobility services.
What makes the Pedal Ahead model unique is that it will be adapted for a much larger, more ambitious statewide initiative.
It all started when Clancy, who has a background in political strategy and community engagement, began working with San Diego County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher and the local nonprofit Rider Safety Visibility to develop the program. The team secured seed funding from San Diego County, the Left Coast Fund, the San Diego Foundation’s COVID-19 Response Fund and SDG&E.
Their goal was to get e-bikes — a mobility option that’s proven to be extremely beneficial for the environment and inexpensive to operate, yet which can easily cost upwards of $1,000 to purchase — in the hands of people who otherwise couldn’t afford them or didn’t readily have access to them. San Diego proved to be ideal testing grounds “because the topography is hilly,” Clancy says, “with long terrains that are ascending and descending.”
They designed an application that prioritized distribution to applicants with an income threshold of $49,000 or lower. Applicants had to agree to ride at least 1,800 miles per year, which equals 150 miles per month or about five miles a day; to record their mileage on a free app; and to secure bike insurance. Applicants who fulfilled the requirements over two years would then own their bike, those who couldn’t meet the requirements would be offered the bike at a prorated cost or Pedal Ahead reallocated the bike to a waitlist participant. (To date there have been over 2,000 applications.)
Outreach began in September of 2020 with a mandate of distributing 400 e-bikes. Each bike would include a “safety and visibility package” that includes a helmet, high visibility vest, front and rear bicycle lights, a bike lock and instructions on how accessories and safety features are operated. Monthly meet and greets happen to expand on rider safety training, do-it-yourself maintenance and bicycle operations.
The team advertised the program with community-based organizations, particularly those serving lower-income neighborhoods, as well as with civic leaders, school, health and wellness departments and business associations.
Hill heard about it at a community food distribution event. “I filled out an application not really expecting to hear anything,” she says. “But a couple of weeks went by and I got invited to the distribution of the first e-bikes.”
Hill soon found she could replace many car trips with her e-bike. “I go to Walmart, Target, Home Depot, grocery stores, the post office … usually places within a three to file mile radius of my house,” she says. When gas prices skyrocketed this year, she rode the bike more frequently.
The program collects testimony and works with them if challenges come up. When Hill’s doctor said she had to take a six-month break from riding due to a surgery, for example, the program offered her an extension. (“An extension proved unnecessary because after my healing I was riding in excess of 200 miles per month to catch up and because it was so fun and rewarding,” Hill says.)
Testimony is largely positive: “We’ve heard about the health benefits, how much it’s helped with people’s commute, how it saved them a ton of money from not taking a car,” Clancy says. “Participants are venturing outside of familiar walking radius with an opportunity to go further for goods and services with healthier results.”
The program also tracks progress through specially-designed software that identifies an ability to meet mileage thresholds.
Pedal Ahead hit its goal of distributing 400 bikes this May and will distribute 125 more this year in a partnership with the San Diego Association of Governments, the region’s public planning and transit agency. In early 2023, Pedal Ahead will begin implementing California’s Electric Bicycle Incentive Project, which will provide $10 million in subsidies to help people buy e-bikes statewide.
“We’re in the process of building a framework for what we learned in San Diego and how that applies to the statewide program,” Clancy says. “We’re working on a draft of the application questionnaire, the strategic plan for implementation into neighborhoods, and a partnership with an organization like the Climate Action Campaign for environmental edification on how this program is impactful.” (An e-bike study found that if only 8% of car trips in California were replaced with e-bikes, the country would save 4,078 metric tons of CO2 every day, enough to power 496 million smartphones.)
Clancy hopes this effort can be part of a larger cultural shift that prioritizes e-bikes as a key tool in reducing car trips, combating climate change and addressing economic inequities. “Education has been a big step in introducing e-bikes as a mobility option,” he says. A portion of the $10 million will be dedicated to outreach, education and operations, with Pedal Ahead hiring representatives in other parts of the state for operation management, community engagement and more.
Road safety, like protected bike lanes and expanded bike infrastructure, is a big part of that cultural shift. “Safety is a problem that people are having,” Hill says of her experience biking in San Diego. “All bike lanes are not created equal throughout the city.”
But after Hill’s experience with her bicycle, she feels like the program is an easy sell. “I am proud to say I completed the requirements of the program so I officially own my e-bike now,” she says. As far as the bike meaningfully changing her mobility habits, she adds, “It absolutely has.”
Emily Nonko is a social justice and solutions-oriented reporter based in Brooklyn, New York. She covers a range of topics for Next City, including arts and culture, housing, movement building and transit.