About a decade ago, before Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall had been elected to the Salt Lake City Council, she remembers standing next to former Mayor Ted Wilson during the launch of the city’s bike share program.

He talked about the joy bikes provide, and reminisced about the freedom he felt riding a bike for the first time as a child.

"People's mouths started smiling," Mendenhall said, reflecting on that moment. "Bikes are this connected experience across cultures, across the planet and across generations."

Electric bicycles, however, appear to be the future of bikes. Nationwide, e-bike sales soared from a little more than 250,000 in 2018 to over 1 million in 2022, according to the U.S. Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

They even have the potential to replace some automobile trips, Mendenhall said, especially as the city builds more bike-friendly paths like the 9-Line Trail. Thus, it can help reduce road congestion and improve air quality in the growing city.

That's why the city is now looking at ways to make it easier for residents to obtain e-bikes. Salt Lake City launched a new pilot program on Tuesday, where city residents can apply online to enter a lottery to receive a rebate voucher at one of five bike shops in the city.

Salt Lake City residents can apply now until the end of July 16. Winners will be selected by the end of July, which is when they will receive a voucher worth $300-$1,300, depending on the applicant's income and the bike model they are purchasing.

For instance, cargo and utility e-bike rebates are higher than city, commuter and adaptive e-bike vouchers because those types of bikes are more expensive. There's also a range based on the applicant's percentage of area median income.

Once in hand, the voucher can be applied to certain purchases at:

"We know our residents have been waiting a long time (for this)," Mendenhall said.

The program's origin

Salt Lake City's program was inspired by other cities that have introduced similar programs in recent years to combat traffic congestion and air quality, especially Denver. Colorado's capital city now offers similar discounts to residents through five voucher rounds throughout the year.

"It was so popular, so quickly," Mendenhall said, standing by a selection of e-bikes set up at Washington Square.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall speaks during an event where Salt Lake City announced the launch of its e-bike voucher program held at Washington Square Park in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 9, 2024. | Isaac Hale, Deseret News

Utah's capital city is testing it first. The City Council allocated $200,000 from its 2024 fiscal year budget to create the program and took about a year for program officials to piece it together.

Beyond reducing car emissions, the mayor said she pushed for the measure because of other benefits, such as community connection. And while the program arose out of the city's sustainability department, e-bikes can also help with rising expenses and other challenges, Salt Lake City Councilwoman Eva Lopez Chavez adds.

They may be an affordable option as the cost of automobile ownership rises and they can expand access to people with health limitations or disabilities.

"This isn't just about people who are passionate about climate change. These can be for people who want a more affordable way to get to work, who want to go down to one car because of expenses or want to spend more time outdoors," she said. "There's so many reasons why we want to incentivize (e-bikes)."

Once the funding was approved, the city started looking for participating businesses.

Tami Rodgers, general manager of Rad Power Bikes, said the city approached the business at the end of last year and the company was on board right away. It wasn't until last month that the company learned it had been chosen.

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"I hope Salt Lake City takes after Denver, where they have new vouchers released (multiple times a year)," she told KSL.com. "I'm hoping that we do end up following that path as well. It's going to be great for our city."

Program future

That remains to be seen, pending the success of the first round of vouchers.

But Mendenhall said the city is prepared to handle the new bicycle traffic if the program does spark a wave of new bike-riding interest.

“We’re building bike lanes all the time and we’re trying to improve the bike lanes we have,” she said. “We’ll keep looking at streets and building new streets through the lens of bike capacity.”

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