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Walk the Walk: Pedal Pusher

By Jesse Morris

 

CAN ONE RMI STAFFER HELP HIS MOUNTAIN TOWN EMBRACE BIKE SHARING?

Standing behind an information table at my local farmer’s market last summer, a second-home owner from Texas who lives part time in Aspen, Colorado, asked me, “Is this part of that big, communist, United Nations scheme to get me out of my car?”

I was there at the market to educate people as a board member of We-Cycle, the world’s first rural bike-sharing program, located in Aspen, where I live. It currently offers 13 conveniently located stations around town with a total of 100 bikes. As the Texan went on, it was clear I had more educating to do: “I mean, those Europeans and liberals down in Boulder can let these bike-share things take up as much parking as they want, but I don’t want them ruinin’ my town.”

“Actually,” I responded, “there’s some serious evidence out there showing how increased bike traffic boosts local U.S. economies from Chattanooga to Minneapolis. And I don’t know about this UN thing, but our program isn’t asking you to do anything. It’s just trying to give folks like yourself a new, low-cost, hassle-free way to see our town.” It would also help to address Aspen’s dual challenges of traffic congestion and transportation-related emissions that harm local air quality in the valley and contribute to climate change worldwide.

My challenge from the Texan highlighted a more fundamental and difficult reality I’d been discovering. No matter how good the economics are, how many health benefits there might be, or how compelling a future vision is, it’s really, really hard to get people out of their cars. No wonder transportation uses almost one-third of all U.S. energy—mostly to move you and me, mainly in two-ton cars and light trucks.

There are two main ways to tackle transportation-related fossil fuel use. The first gets most of the mainstream press’ attention: make cars and trucks more efficient and run them on different fuels, including electricity. The second method, less-discussed but potentially very powerful, is simpler and therefore harder to imagine: design transportation systems and the places we live so people don’t need to use personal vehicles to get from point A to point B in the first place. That’s where bike sharing comes in.

But as I discovered with the skeptical Texan, words would usually only get me so far. Instead, the best way to convince people was to physically walk them through the user experience. Slide the bike-share key in, adjust the seat height, and start pedaling; use an app on your mobile phone to make sure there’s room at the next station, re-rack the bike, and your ride is complete. And did I mention that it’s cheaper than driving your car, gets you some exercise, and lets you take in your beautiful surroundings without a sheet of auto-glass between you and the view?

I remained undeterred. I’m an avid cyclist, and in addition to speaking with folks one on one, I rode We-Cycle all over town, encouraged visiting friends to hop on the bandwagon, and worked hard to bring in new donors and generate buy-in throughout the community. But convincing one person at a time that We-Cycle is a good idea only got us so far. In addition, we needed the local government’s support for We-Cycle to succeed. And in our efforts to court local government support of the program, I was struck by another difficult truth.

At RMI, we tend to support and encourage state- or local-level policymaking, since passing policies to support the Reinventing Fire vision is easier at state and municipal levels than it is in Washington. But as I discovered, going the local route is no ride in the park either.

Aspen, a progressive and wellfunded city government, was not interested in providing significant levels of funding to We-Cycle, even though cities like Aspen both face congestion issues and invest heavily in transportation infrastructure. It can be a tough sell to get local governments to invest in new technologies and approaches with the potential to enable a more efficient and low-carbon future—something that we at RMI ask individuals, businesses, and governments to consider almost daily. My latest local government interaction has highlighted how I, as a general communicator and RMI staffer, need to do some soul-searching and figure out how to better engage local government officials, especially if I expect Reinventing Fire to succeed without the need for federal-level policy change (though we’ll happily accept supportive national policies too).

I don’t have all of the answers to these challenges, but I do know this: We-Cycle had a great first year of operation with more than 10,000 rides logged—not bad for a town with a permanent population below 7,000.

My experience with We-Cycle has been both enlightening and incredibly frustrating. It’s shown me just how difficult it is to get individuals to change their transportation habits, and it has also made trying to get folks to adopt solar energy (one of my day-to-day responsibilities at RMI) look somewhat easier by comparison.

Nonetheless, I plan on continuing to try and bring the Reinventing Fire message home and live it in my daily life, not just professionally at RMI, but personally. I’ve invested in Solar Mosaic (an investing platform that allows folks like me who don’t own their rooftop to invest in and make a return on green energy), helped my local homeowners’ association get high-efficiency natural gas boilers, taught high-school students about the economic case for energy efficiency, and advised local towns on renewable energy procurement strategies. And I drive a bright orange Prius…when I’m not on my bicycle.

As for We-Cycle, it’s shuttered for the winter season while Aspenites hit the ski slopes. But it’ll be back this spring, and I’ll be there once again, getting more people out of their cars and onto
a bike.

Jesse Morris is a senior associate for RMI.

Image courtesy of Romy Purshouse