Local nonprofit WE-cycle pivoted its offerings as its user group shifted from visitors to locals during COVID-19. New stations near workforce housing and the addition of e-bikes made downtown usage more accessible.


WE-cycle, the valley’s government-subsidized public bike-share program, has been put into hibernation for the winter after a season of adaptations amidst a global pandemic.

Mirte Mallory, WE-cycle executive director, said that in looking back on the season, the program was able to pivot to ultimately better serve the local community that relies on it.

“That became the focus of our service this year, was that we as an organization pivoted our service offerings in alignment with how our community had to change in response to the pandemic,” she said.

The bikes stayed stored away through the spring’s statewide stay-at-home orders, and the standard May 1 opening day came and went. But by June 1, the service was given the green light, and the team began to put health and safety procedures in place.

It was no easy task, being that the foundation of the program is based on an idea of strangers all utilizing the same collective resource.

“Ironically, not sharing is caring is caring,” Mallory said about COVID-19 precautions. “And yet bike-share still plays a very valuable role in the transportation system as a socially distant, outdoor and single-passenger form of transportation.”

Staff members — who in other years were only responsible for transferring bikes from full stations to stations that needed bikes — became responsible for also sanitizing all bikes at each of the more than 30 stations. They spent the majority of their time socially distant by moving bikes from one station to another using their own pedal-powered carrier system.

“The team did an extraordinary job maintaining a healthy, safe service for riders and the community and doing so in alignment with our organizational goals,” Mallory said.

Riders were also asked to sanitize their hands before and after use, and data compiled by WE-cycle showed that users were much more inclined to check out bikes using the local transportation application on their personal phones than by using the checkout system at the kiosks.

But early on, Mallory was unsure of where the public’s comfort level would be when it came to the sharing economy in a pandemic world.

“In the beginning of the season, we were still just emerging from stay-at-home and shelter-in-place [orders],” she said.

Just as the rest of town began to crawl out of isolation and people became more comfortable dining in restaurants and shopping downtown, WE-cycle use also saw an increase as the summer went on.

“As we look at the arc of the season, a lot of our community patterns have evolved since June. We start to see a return to more consistent ridership patterns to previous years as we get into the fall and later in the season,” Mallory said.

Looking inward

Aspen’s summer population is typically dominated by the high-profile festivals headed by the town’s institutions, such as the Aspen Institute, Aspen Music Festival and School and the Food and Wine Classic.

With all conferences canceled this year, the short-term guest was not a fixture around town, but extended-stay guests lodging in residential areas increased, and the local workforce still needed to make it to their jobs for a bustling year for the service industry.

Mallory said that by design, bike-share infrastructure is nimble, and so the organization was able to build out a system suited directly to the needs of its users’ changing habits.

“We are able to make several stations larger and introduce new stations that residents and riders had been asking for for years,” she said.

The Music Tent was eliminated altogether, and a new station in the East Side residential neighborhood of Park Avenue and Park Circle was erected. This also allowed a station that had been located at the base of Smuggler Mountain to instead be placed close to the bus stop at the Centennial Housing apartments, a large workforce housing development.

In years past, the Smuggler station was in the lower third for usage — but when relocated closer to the housing complex and other forms of public transportation, ridership increased significantly.

“It reinforces that density of stations supports increased ridership, because you are serving more people and making the service more convenient,” Mallory said.

She also said the Centennial stop was a poster child for the company’s biggest launch this year: electric-powered bikes. Six class 2 e-bikes were integrated throughout the system this year to assist riders going a longer distance or climbing uphill.

“A station that we relocated closer to denser housing that also was an uphill station, to see those work in parallel and tandem emerged as one of the cornerstones of the system for the year,” she said.

Retraining needed

WE-cycle is not meant to be used for recreation but instead provide further eco-friendly options for transportation as an alternative to single-occupancy vehicles making their way into town.

However, public transportation as a whole took a hit this year, with travelers feeling more secure being the only one in their enclosed vehicle as opposed to sharing space on an open bus. Furthermore, the state has cut down the occupancy levels that are allowed on buses, so those who used the service were uncertain if there would be room for them by the time the bus arrived.

In addition, many workplaces required their employees to work from home, entirely eliminating the need for public transportation for commuters in certain sectors of the economy.

Still, Mallory said that the majority of the bike rentals were used for commuters’ needs, as showcased by the number of rides that terminated in the Rubey Park transit hub.

But this year, the station in Aspen’s downtown core ­surpassed Rubey as the number one hub, suggesting that employees who must work in person — such as Aspen’s bustling restaurant and retail sectors — relied on WE-cycle throughout the pandemic.

“When one could work remotely, we saw a direct correlation in decreased ridership-to-office-based employment centers. But trends between bus stops and hospitality-service-focused stations remained consistent with prior years,” Mallory said.

Overall, ridership was indeed down from previous years’ record-breaking numbers, however. She said it took much less time for the community’s habits to shift away from public transit than it took to make it a habit in the first place.

“We spent years developing ridership confidence and growth and reliance on services,” Mallory said. “And due to the challenges of social distancing and the pandemic, we are seeing an adjustment of behavior that isn’t in line with our traffic reduction goals.”

WE-cycle is always dormant in the winter, and Mallory and her team are waiting and watching to see what the status of the pandemic will be when the bikes are scheduled to come out of hibernation again next spring. But either way, Mallory said this summer showed that pedal-power transportation can be a safe and effective commuter tool.

“As we look ahead, what is exciting to see is that bike-share is a socially distant form of transit, so it allows that flexibility,” she said.

Alycin Bektesh is a reporter for the Aspen Daily News. She can be reached at Alycin@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @alycinwonder.