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Bikes get slighted in compromise climate deal

The agreement struck between Sens. Schumer and Manchin has large incentives for electric cars. For bicycles, not so much.

A bicyclist in the Rosslyn neighborhood in Arlington, Va., in July. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Wind turbines. Solar panels. Electric cars, nuclear reactors, geothermal energy.

The $369 billion climate package unveiled by Democrats last week is chock-full of subsidies for technologies meant to rein in planet-warming pollution. But there’s one popular, emissions-free machine conspicuously absent from what could be the nation’s most significant piece of climate legislation yet: the bicycle.

Provisions designed to supercharge the sale and use of traditional bikes and the battery-powered variety were dropped from the climate deal reached by Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Joe Manchin III (W.Va.), the Senate’s most conservative Democrat. The absence is grinding the gears of bike manufacturers and cycling enthusiasts who pushed for months to include the pro-bike provisions in Democrats’ climate package.

“We need people not just to shift from gasoline cars to electric cars. We need people to shift from cars, period,” said David Zipper, a visiting fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Taubman Center for State and Local Government who focuses on urban development. “We can do that. But there’s nothing in this bill that makes that process easier or faster or more likely to happen.”

Dropped from the deal is a tax credit worth up to $900 to help cyclists purchase electric bikes. Also gone is a pretax benefit for commuters to help cover the cost of biking to work. Versions of both benefits were included in the roughly $2 trillion spending package that passed the House last year.

The proposed commuter benefit for bikers, which Republicans repealed in 2017, would be similar to a perk many employees already get for taking a car or subway to work.

“I’m surprised that that didn’t make it in, because it just seems so common-sense,” said Caron Whitaker, the deputy executive director of the League of American Bicyclists, a cycling advocacy group.

Sam Runyon, a spokeswoman for Manchin, declined to comment.

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The transportation sector outpaces power plants as the nation’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter. The Biden administration’s big bet for lowering those emissions is to shift drivers from gasoline-powered cars to electric vehicles.

But biking advocates say that getting more commuters onto two wheels not only makes streets safer for pedestrians but also is better for the environment. Electric cars and trucks need more energy than e-bikes to operate, and much of that electricity still comes from power plants burning fossil fuels.

Cycling makes up only a small fraction of commutes, even though most car trips are less than six miles long. Companies tout electric cargo bikes that can tote groceries or kids as worthy alternatives to automobiles.

“We know that bicycles — and increasingly electric bicycles and electric cargo bicycles — have the unique capacity to replace those short car trips,” said Noa Banayan, a lobbyist for PeopleForBikes, a trade association representing bike makers. “We want to make this normal for everyday Americans and accessible to low-income folks, too.”

But it was hard for bicycle manufacturers to match the clout of automakers, who fought to include a $7,500 tax credit for new electric vehicles over Manchin’s apprehensions in the climate and economic package, dubbed the Inflation Reduction Act. The deal also includes a tax credit for used electric vehicles.

“It is difficult to understate the lobbying power that car companies have,” Zipper said. “We make jokes about Big Bike, but the reality is that it is a minuscule lobbying force supporting bicycles compared to what’s behind automobiles.”

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One bump in the road for the bike provisions was the price tag. The federal government would be on the hook for $4.1 billion to subsidize the purchase of e-bikes, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation, which prepares cost and revenue estimates on tax proposals.

But that estimate is out of line with manufacturers’ sales projections, Banayan said. “That’s just not quite congruent with what we’re expecting in the industry overall,” she said.

The Schumer-Manchin deal isn’t all bad news for cyclists: The package includes about $3 billion for grants from the Transportation Department to help states and local governments make neighborhoods safer for walking and biking.

And many Americans already pedal to cut their own carbon footprints. Many of those cyclists are happy to see Congress doing something — anything — about global warming, especially after a climate deal looked dead earlier this summer.

“As a movement,” Whitaker said, “we really want to see this climate legislation go through.”

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