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NREL OpenPATH Tool Enables Expanded E-Bike Pilot Program To Demonstrate Energy-Efficiency Benefits

The demand for e-bikes, which in urban and suburban settings can render cars unnecessary, was so high the first time vouchers in Denver, CO were distributed the application window was shut in just weeks. The next time, it overwhelmed Denver’s servers. ​​

The transportation sector is one of the largest contributors to the nation’s carbon emissions. The fastest-growing form of electric vehicle made to help combat 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 trips. E-bikes also ease public transportation challenges and encourage healthier lifestyles, among other benefits that are currently being studied in an extensive pilot program in Colorado.

Building upon a successful Colorado 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) teamed up with the CEO once again to collect and analyze travel data as part of an expanded full-scale, two-year e-bike pilot.

The CEO funded five projects for the full-scale pilot that started in spring 2021, including the distribution of 181 e-bikes and 50 e-bike-share memberships to low-income essential workers in diverse locations across Colorado. With the program moving into its second year, the preliminary results from the first year are encouraging.

E-Bike Pilot Expansion Highlights NREL OpenPATH’s Capabilities

The expanded pilot encompasses six additional locations across Colorado, including Fort Collins, Boulder, and Pueblo. The ongoing data collection and integrated analysis elements of this project leverage a modular, open-source platform called NREL OpenPATH. The platform automatically detects participant trips through a smartphone app, creates a travel diary, and displays it to participants for labeling. This information is used by both NREL and CEO to understand e-bike use patterns and general travel habits, as well as to evaluate data regarding the carbon emissions savings that can be achieved by switching from single-occupancy vehicles to e-bikes.

Spurred on by the success of the CEO e-bike effort, NREL made the OpenPATH capability broadly available to public agencies. Program managers can ask participants to install the publicly available version of the NREL OpenPATH-based app from the Google Play or Apple app stores and use it to join their study through a program-specific page. An “open access” version features a built-in carbon footprint tracker to enable individuals to track their travel emissions impact and help shift their travel choices toward more sustainable options. The open-source nature of the tool also makes it accessible to anyone who might want to modify it and leverage the tool to use for 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 for tackling some of the toughest transportation challenges. The unique data captured by the OpenPATH tool can inform the creation of policies needed to support growth of the micromobility market.

“Travel mobility tends to focus on larger vehicles, and the lack of data revealing the travel behavior of people in these types of communities creates disparity for how infrastructure and transportation projects are funded,” said NREL’s Andrew Duvall, project lead and transportation behavior analyst. “OpenPATH democratizes mobility data collection, which will enable policymakers to be more informed when making investment choices—such as adding a bike lane on a bridge when it’s built, rather than expensive retrofitting; taking into account how people are traveling and ensuring energy-efficient options are factored into infrastructure.”

Testing and Improving E-Bike Ownership Models

The potential for NREL OpenPATH and the CEO e-bike pilots to shape public planning and investment is substantial—but not without its challenges. Each e-bike pilot program in Colorado is testing different programs, models, and incentives with their participants to capture various types of insights.

One program that encompasses Adams and Broomfield counties is Smart Commute. The program opted for a two-phase loan-to-own model, which enables participants to use e-bikes for a trial period before transitioning to full ownership. Among the findings from Smart Commute’s first year into the full-scale pilot was the realization that infrastructure (including bike racks and charging stations) compatible with e-bikes was sparse.

“When I asked them during the [e-bike] loan exit interview, ‘Why didn’t you take your e-bike for more errands?’ the number one factor that arose was that they were scared to lose the e-bikes. They didn’t want to take them to places where they couldn’t be secured properly,” said Jeanne Shreve, the e-bike program administrator for Smart Commute.

That concern led Shreve’s team to begin developing a database for e-bike-friendly developments and to connect participants with other resources that they were interested in.

“Our thought was that if we were going to ask them to do this, then we needed to give them the right gear for them to be successful,” she said.

On the other side of Colorado, 4Core is leading CEO’s e-bike pilot in the city of Durango. Their program “Roll-to-Restaurants” serves low-income restaurant employees, including members of the LatinX community, Native Americans, students, and essential workers in the foodservice industry who were greatly impacted by the pandemic and are vital to Durango’s tourist economy. 4CORE also utilized a loan-to-own program that provided the e-bikes and accessories up front and enabled participants to completely own the e-bike after several months of consistent data collection.

“Our participants have been very grateful for the program and have reported that they enjoy riding their e-bikes to work, errands, social activities, and more,” said Laura Haidet, program manager at 4CORE. “We have shown that e-bike trips have replaced many vehicle trips.”

Despite this success, however, Haidet said motivation to continue providing data was one of the main challenges 4CORE encountered. To address the decline in manual user input, an automatic labeling feature with an error gauge will be integrated into the next phase of the public NREL OpenPATH app.

Still, 4CORE and Smart Commute are optimistic that the pilot program will expand to increase access to e-bikes. The state of Colorado is optimistic, too. Colorado’s Pollution Reduction Roadmap outlined plans to reduce vehicle trips and statewide emissions, and e-bike usage—especially through this pilot program—is going to play a critical role in achieving this vision. The findings from this pilot have already informed the creation of new e-bike incentive programs in Denver, Colorado, and e-bike loan programs in partnership with the New Haven, Connecticut, Clean Cities Coalition.

“The learnings we’ve gained through the CEO e-bike pilot have been incredible. I’m now looking forward to seeing how we can maximize NREL OpenPATH’s impact beyond Colorado,” said K. Shankari, an NREL director’s fellow who developed the tool. “It’s exciting to think how future analyses that are informed by travel pattern data on how e-bike programs work may help shape local, state, national policies around what and how to incentivize regarding e-bike usage.”

Learn more about NREL’s sustainable transportation and mobility research and Transportation Secure Data Center.

Article courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).
By Natasha Nguyen

Related story: Clearing The Air, A New Normal — Bicycles & Electric Cars = $10,000 In Social Benefits

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