The transportation sector is one of the largest contributors to carbon emissions in the country. The fastest-growing form of electric vehicle built to help fight climate change, however, is not an electric car.
Electric bicycles – also known as e-bikes – are emerging as reliable, low-carbon alternatives to car travel for short journeys. E-bikes also ease public transportation challenges and encourage healthier lifestyles, among other benefits currently being studied in an extensive pilot program in Colorado.
Building on the successful Energy Office (CEO) Can Do Colorado e-Bike mini-pilot to encourage energy-efficient transportation among 13 low-income essential workers during the pandemic, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) once again partnered with the CEO for collecting and analyzing travel data as part of an expanded two-year e-bike pilot.
The executive funded five projects for a full pilot that began in spring 2021, including the distribution of 181 e-bikes and 50 e-bike-share memberships to low-income grassroots workers in various locations across Colorado. As the program moves into its second year, preliminary results from the first year are encouraging.
The E-Bike Pilot extension highlights the capabilities of NREL OpenPATH
The expanded pilot includes six additional locations across Colorado, including Fort Collins, Boulder and Pueblo. The ongoing data collection and integrated analysis elements of this project use a modular open source platform called NREL OpenPATH. The platform automatically detects participant trips via a smartphone app, creates a trip log and displays it to participants for marking. This information is used by both NREL and the CEO to understand e-bike usage patterns and general travel habits, and to estimate data related to the carbon savings that can be achieved by switching from single-occupancy vehicles to e-bikes.
Spurred on by the success of CEO e-bikes, NREL has made the OpenPATH capability widely available to public agencies. Program managers can ask participants to install a publicly available version of the NREL OpenPATH-based app from the Google Play or Apple app stores and use it to join learning through a program-specific page. The “open access” version features a built-in carbon footprint tracker that allows individuals to monitor their emissions impact and help shift their travel choices towards more sustainable options. The open source nature of the tool also makes it accessible to anyone who might want to modify it and exploit the tool for use in more specific studies.
Helping identify micromobility options
Understanding the role that micromobility options, including e-bikes, can play in meeting the mobility needs of underrepresented, rural and remote communities offers great potential to address some of the toughest transportation challenges. The unique data collected by OpenPATH can be used to inform the policies needed to support the growth of the micromobility market.
“Passenger mobility tends to focus on larger vehicles, and the lack of data revealing people’s travel behavior in these types of communities creates inequities in how infrastructure and transportation projects are funded,” said NREL’s Andrew Duvall, project leader and analyst. behavior in transport. “OpenPATH democratizes the collection of mobility data, which will allow policymakers to be more informed when making investment decisions—such as adding a bike lane to a bridge when it’s built, rather than an expensive retrofit; taking into account the way people travel and ensuring that energy efficient options are included in the infrastructure.”
Testing and improving the e-bike ownership model
The potential for NREL OpenPATH and CEO e-bike pilots to shape public planning and investment is significant—but not without challenges. Each e-bike pilot program in Colorado tests different programs, models and incentives with its participants to gather different types of insights.
One program that spans Adams and Broomfield counties is Smart Commute. The program opted for a two-phase ownership loan model, which allows participants to use e-bikes for a trial period before transitioning to full ownership. Among the findings from Smart Commute’s first year in the full pilot was the realization that infrastructure (including bike racks and charging stations) compatible with e-bikes is rare.
“When I asked them during [e-bike] Loan exit interview, ‘Why didn’t you take your e-bike for more errands?’ the number one factor that came up was that they were afraid of losing the e-bikes. They didn’t want to take them to places where they couldn’t be properly secured,” said Jeanne Shreve, e-bike program administrator for Smart Commute.
That concern led Shreve’s team to begin developing a database of e-bike-friendly developments and to connect participants with other resources they were interested in.
“We thought if we were going to ask them to do it, then we had to give them the right equipment to be successful,” she said.
On the other side of Colorado, 4Core is leading the CEO’s e-bike pilot in the city of Durango. Their “Roll-to-Restaurants” program serves low-income restaurant employees, including members of the LatinX community, Native Americans, students and essential food industry workers who have been greatly impacted by the pandemic and are vital to Durango’s tourism economy. 4CORE also used a loan-to-own program that pre-provided e-bikes and accessories and allowed participants to fully own the e-bike after several months of consistent data collection.
“Our participants were very appreciative of the program and reported enjoying riding their e-bikes to work, errands, social activities and more,” said Laura Haidet, Program Manager at 4CORE. “We showed that e-bike trips have replaced many vehicle trips.”
However, despite this success, Haidet said the motivation to continue providing data is one of the main challenges 4CORE has faced. To address the decline in manual user input, an auto-tagging feature with an error meter will be integrated into the next phase of the public NREL OpenPATH application.
Still, 4CORE and Smart Commute are optimistic that the pilot program will expand to increase access to e-bikes. And the state of Colorado is optimistic. Colorado’s Roadmap for Reducing Pollution has outlined plans to reduce vehicle travel and emissions across the state, and the use of e-bikes – particularly through this pilot program – will play a key role in achieving this vision. Findings from this pilot program have already led to the creation of new e-bike incentive programs in Denver, Colorado, and an e-bike loan program in partnership with the New Haven, Connecticut, Clean Cities Coalition.
“The learning we gained through the CEO e-bike pilot was incredible. Now I look forward to seeing how we can maximize the impact of NREL OpenPATH beyond Colorado,” said K. Shankari, fellow NREL director who developed the tool. “It’s exciting to think about how future travel pattern data-driven analyzes of how e-bike programs work can help shape local, state, and national policies around what and how to encourage e-bike use.”
Learn more about NRELs sustainable transport and mobility research and Transport secure data center.
Article courtesy of the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).
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