Asking upper valley transit board for $175K, more from midvalley

WE-cycle wants to make bike sharing free for anyone who lives and works in Aspen or Pitkin County and will ask the Elected Officials Transportation Committee on Thursday for a $175,000 grant for 2017 that would make that possible, while also supporting operational costs.

A memo to the EOTC — a body comprised of Aspen City Council, Pitkin County commissioners and the Snowmass Village Town Council — lays out the argument that bike sharing is an extension of the public transportation network and therefore is eligible for funding from the board that controls more than $6 million in 2017 projected proceeds from sales and use taxes dedicated to transit.

“According to 2016 WE-cycle surveys, 69 percent of season passholders use WE-cycle in conjunction with RFTA, 80 percent of whom ride WE-cycle to or from the bus,” says the memo from WE-cycle co-founder and director Mirte Mallory. “Affirming these usage patterns, it correlates that WE-cycle’s busiest stations are RFTA BRT stops … ”

Just under half of WE-cycle passholders in the same survey reported using bike sharing to eliminate car trips, which Mallory said gels with the EOTC mission of reducing congestion.

But whether or not EOTC taxes dedicated to transit can be used to fund WE-cycle is unclear to Pitkin County Attorney John Ely. At a work sessions with commissioners on Tuesday, he said that “Quite frankly, I’m not sure [WE-cycle] fits under the restriction of the ballot language establishing the tax.”

Ely said he was not prepared to say that WE-cycle doesn’t qualify, but he wants to study the issue more before Thursday’s meeting, which begins at 4 p.m. in Snowmass Town Hall.

Commissioners didn’t offer input regarding whether or not they felt WE-cycle counts as transit, but Chairwoman Rachel Richards said she wants to get all the attorneys representing the EOTC boards on the same page.

WE-cycle launched in Aspen in 2013, has expanded each year since, and now has 23 stations and 110 bikes available for check out for point-to-point trips around town. It debuted in the midvalley in summer 2016 with 20 stations and 83 bikes from Basalt to El Jebel. Users took 30,000 rides on WE-cycle this summer, which is triple the rides in 2013, according to Mallory.

WE-cycle would like to offer free season passes to anyone living and working in Aspen and Pitkin County, as well as Basalt and the Eagle County portion of the Roaring Fork Valley. This would be in keeping with established fare-free service on RFTA busses circulating through Aspen and between Aspen and Snowmass Village, as well as downvalley circulator busses, Mallory said. RFTA’s regional service connecting the upper, middle and lower portions of the valley requires a fare.

“We’ve set the precedent in this valley where short trips are free and longer trips are paid — that’s the paradigm to which we have grown accustomed,” she said, arguing that WE-cycle service should be consistent with the fare-free model to increase integration between bike sharing, busses and other forms of transit.

“We as a community have invested in no-fare or fare-free service to incentivize the use of transit in lieu of private vehicles” to reduce congestion, she said.

Those living or working in Aspen this summer who signed up for the city of Aspen’s “drive less” program could choose a free WE-cycle season pass, typically a $50 value, as an incentive, among other options. The number of season pass holders jumped from 523 last year to 1,200 this year, Mallory said. It was a valuable lesson in how much additional use the system could see if it was offered without a fare.

If EOTC approves the grant, WE-cycle would still charge for day passes, which cost $9 and are most typically sold to visitors.

About 75 percent of rides on the system are from season passholders, she added.

WE-cycle will make separate requests to Basalt and Eagle County to fund passes for locals residing and working in those jurisdictions.

WE-cycle is eyeing continued growth, and would like to launch bike sharing networks in Glenwood Springs and Carbondale in 2018, but to do that, it will require more public investment, Mallory said. The nonprofit is eyeing a long-term partnership with RFTA to meet increased operational cost needs.

In 2015, the last year when numbers were published, WE-cycle got 24 percent of its $269,316 in revenue from pass sales and user overtime fees. Sixty-seven percent ($181,017) was generated from private sector sponsorships and grants, while government grants accounted for 9 percent of operating revenues.

The private funding comes from 75 different sources, but only one — Valley View Hospital, the midvalley bike sponsor — has agreed to a multi-year commitment. Other major sponsors, such as system title sponsor Aspen Snowmass Sotheby’s and Aspen bike sponsor Adidas Outdoors, have renewed year over year for multiple years.

The sponsor support is generous, Mallory said, but “operating on a year-to-year basis makes planning and predictability very challenging.”

More public support doesn’t mean WE-cycle is anticipating a drop in private-sector sponsorships and grants, Mallory said.

“We are committed to maintaining those sponsorships,” she said. “But we cannot continue to ask more of the private sector as we have grown more successful as an organization. We have tripled our rides since opening, but we can’t ask the private sector to triple its support.”