A Colorado pilot program run by We-Cycle and SkyHook Solar is positioning bike share as an even more potent tool in the fight against climate change.
The Roaring Fork Valley, which stretches along Colorado’s Western Slope, punches far above its weight when it comes to innovation in bike share. We-Cycle, which serves Aspen and Basalt, launched in 2013, the first bike share system in a North American mountain town. In years since, We-Cycle has shifted to exclusively offer free 30-minute rides, maintained a Movimiento en Bici program to engage Latinx residents and most recently, in partnership with Carbondale-based SkyHook Solar, launched two off-the-grid, solar-powered charging stations for electric bicycles.
“For years, the [Roaring Fork] Valley has demonstrated itself to be a pioneer when it comes to transportation and renewable energy,” says Mirte Mallory, co-founder and executive director of We-Cycle. “This new, local partnership is inspiring more people to choose bikes over cars and it feels aligned with the values of our Valley.”
The idea for the solar project goes back some two years, when electric bikes weren’t yet a part of We-Cycle’s system and SkyHook Solar was a brand new company.
“This idea was on our radar from the beginning as we anticipated the transition to e-bikes in the bike share industry,” says Daniel Delano, president and CEO of SkyHook Solar. “E-bikes just seem to make sense for bike share programs.”
According to Delano, the goal from day one was to design and engineer a solar station that was attractive, something that would be welcome on both city streets or a trailhead in the backcountry. The resulting stations, located at Aspen Valley Hospital and a Bus Rapid Transit stop in Basalt, are elegant in their simplicity, with a nine foot canopy that obscures the solar panels and ensures that storefronts or mountain views remain unobstructed. Before deploying the We-Cycle stations this past June, SkyHook first tested models in downtown Denver and Aspen. Currently, the company also has a pilot program in operation at the BCycle headquarters in Madison, Wisconsin.
“It was a lot of work in development but now that we’ve done it, it’s possible for us to work with different bike programs,” says Delano, noting that the technology could be tweaked to accommodate dockless bikes. “The stations can also be adapted to include video security, which is a big consideration in some locations where bike theft and vandalism are a problem.”
Although the solar stations do require consistent sun and have less energy capacity in the winter, Delano believes that they’d work well just about anywhere. And despite the fact that there are just 25 e-bikes total between Aspen and Basalt, the model is easily scalable. Crucially, solar charging also means that bike share can remain a zero-emissions transportation option in the face of a growing trend towards electrification.
“If e-bikes recharge on the grid, then they’re only as clean as the grid is,” says Delano. “Our aim is to make the transition to e-bikes as clean and efficient as possible.”
For We-Cycle, the solar stations were a natural extension of the nonprofit’s operating mission. Prior to their installation, the system’s e-bikes were charged by hand in the company office, an inefficient method that required staff to collect them and kept bikes out of service while they charged. Now, riders shuttle the bikes between the charging stations—strategically placed at the top of a hill and at a high-traffic transit hub—and are encouraged to choose their bikes based on battery life. If the bikes fall below 20%, a staff member will ferry them back to a charging station, where they take a few hours to recharge depending on the number of e-bikes docked.
“Both operationally and environmentally, solar-powered stations are the most cost-effective, efficient and sustainable choice,” says Mallory. “Not only does it reduce the up-front costs of connecting to the grid, but operationally it’s more efficient because we’re not redistributing bikes and the sun is recharging the bicycles. Over a long period of time, that is more sustainable for the organization as well as more impactful.”
At We-Cycle, as with many systems around the country, the e-bikes are incredibly popular, used for about five times as many rides as the classic pedal bikes. Although We-Cycle plans to continue with a mixed system, Mallory hopes to add in more e-bikes and solar stations as funding allows, remaining strategic when it comes to placement and always ensuring that the nonprofit is operating in the best interest of the larger community. As the e-bikes and the solar stations rolled out, We-Cycle communicated about the changes in Spanish, tapping its Movimiento en Bici program ambassadors to encourage use and address any questions about the charging technology or concerns about the pricing structure (We-Cycle disincentivizes long trips by charging $5/min for e-bikes after the first 30 minutes).
“Each bike share landscape is completely different and each operator needs to make decisions that align with the values of its community,” says Mallory. “We have a mission to reduce our carbon footprint and we sought a creative solution that would work in our particular bike share landscape. And we worked collaboratively and nimbly to get there.”
Here’s hoping other systems follow suit.
The Better Bike Share Partnership is funded by The JPB Foundation as a collaboration between the City of Philadelphia, the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) and the PeopleForBikes Foundation to build equitable and replicable bike share systems. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram or sign up for our weekly newsletter. Got a question or a story idea? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.