SANTA CRUZ, Calif. (AP) _ Even a proudly progressive, low-key college town like Santa Cruz can't escape what plagues the rest of America: too many cars on the road.

Officials are practically begging people to get out of their cars and onto electric bicycles _ an environmentally friendly product that has been slow to catch on elsewhere.

As part of a $1 million plan, called the most comprehensive of its kind in the nation, Santa Cruz County residents will be eligible for discounts, rebates and even interest-free loans on electric bikes, which can cost upward of $1,000.

The plan is being championed by a former fixture of the transportation establishment, Lee Iacocca, although he has a vested interest: He now runs EV Global, a Los Angeles company that makes electric bikes and has found business to be tepid at best.

``I don't want to get rid of the cars in your garage,'' the former Ford president and Chrysler chairman said last week. ``It took me 50 years to put them there. I want to complement them.''

Electric bikes are much like regular bikes, except they have a battery-powered motor that spins the back wheel.

That provides a boost to a pedaling rider or replaces pedaling altogether for up to 20 miles _ making it easy to zip up hills, cruise through town at 18 mph and arrive at work or school without breaking a sweat. The batteries can be plugged into any standard outlet and need about four hours to fully charge.

The bikes, which have been available for about five years, are a cost-effective way to replace gas-guzzling short car trips.

But their popularity has been limited and electric bikes are mainly available only online or through specialty dealers.

Gary Starr, chief executive of Zapworld.com, an electric bike and scooter maker in Sebastopol, Calif., estimates that there are between 75,000 and 100,000 electric bikes and scooters on American roads.

``I think the only reason it hasn't taken off so far is lack of exposure,'' he said.

Iacocca's privately held company aimed to sell 2,000 electric bikes a month this year; he said they've been struggling to crack 1,000. Zapworld's sales were up 56 percent in the first half of this year, but the company's stock has hovered around $5 for months.

If any place is suited for kick-starting the market, it's Santa Cruz, which prides itself on its spiritual distance from the traffic-choked Silicon Valley on the other side of the mountains. Home to a hilly University of California campus 65 miles south of San Francisco, Santa Cruz offers extensive bike routes, and signs remind drivers to share the road with cyclists.

The county's plan calls for retailers to sell electric bikes at a discount and with extended warranties. Backed by as much as $1 million in local, state and federal transportation funds, officials plan to give $250 rebates on the bikes to county residents and set up battery-charging stations around town. A local nonprofit organization promises to provide the no-interest loans.

Activists said rebates on electric bikes and other electric vehicles have been offered in other cities, such as Sacramento and Palm Springs. But it appears no community before Santa Cruz has so strongly endorsed the bikes.

``The bike, generally, around this country is still a second-class mode of transportation,'' said Deron Lovaas, a representative of the Sierra Club's anti-sprawl campaign in Washington, D.C.

Retired teacher Thomas Whieldon, 57, came to the announcement of Santa Cruz's bike program in hopes of finding something to take pressure off his aching knees when he bikes around town.

He was excited by the ETC Express, a battery-powered unit made by the Electric Transportation Co., based in Santa Barbara. The unit, available for less than $400, fits over the back wheel of a regular bike.

``It's just a proven fact that the more active you are, the more circulation you have, the healthier you stay,'' Whieldon said. ``This gives older people a chance to stay active.''

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On the Net:

Santa Cruz County: http://www.co.santa-cruz.ca.us

Electric Transportation Co.: http://www.etcbikes.com

EV Global: http://www.evglobal.com

Zapworld: http://www.zapworld.com