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The electric bike could use a political boost

Would an electric bike be a smart way to get around? One hundred twenty million Chinese electric-bike drivers apparently think so.

Alan Durning, the head of the Sightline Institute in Seattle, has started a five-part series on electric bikes, for the think tank’s Sightline Daily. For a region with considerable momentum on biking but still facing lots of hills (figurative and real), Durning has hit a perfect topic.

The story of the electric bike, as Durning presents it, is also a parable, offering us larger lessons about how U.S. society can make progress toward sustainability, good health and regional prosperity (precisely the down-to-earth but farsighted combination of concerns that makes Sightline Institute so fascinating). As much as new technologies have to offer, Durning says, public policy is critical to the ability of the electric bike (or the electric car or solar generation of electricity) to go mainstream.

Two factors motivated Durning to start the series. “As a cyclist myself, I am fascinated by new technology,” he said. “And the second is, some of my peers are despairing of the political response” to climate change, energy, and peak oil issues. Some of them are inclined to think maybe they should just concentrate on promoting market adoption of new technologies.

Durning set out to show, over the course of this week, that, for all the hard work and patience political change demands, public policy is critical to promoting mainstream usage of sustainable, environmentally friendly technologies. So, we get back to those 120 million Chinese (a stunning one-tenth of the world’s most populous nation): Does public policy have something to do with that level of usage in a country where there were only 56,000 electric bikes in 1998?

Keep reading the series, Durning advises. He will discuss China’s public policy later in the week as he makes the case for public policy action in this country.

Despite his own concern and disappointment with national politics, Durning is typically focused on progress. He expects that Congress may produce “at least a modestly good” piece of climate and energy legislation later this year. Compared to a few years ago, he said, “the country is much more ready for change.” Perhaps those of us in the Northwest are even ready for change in how we get around day to day, despite being told for so long that the climate and terrain would prevent bicycling from becoming an important part of the transportation picture.

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