Colorado wants to get more e-bikes into low-income communities — and it’ll pay organizations with ideas for how

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
An electric B-Cycle station just off Boulder’s Pearl Street, Saturday, July 30, 2022.

As it tries to cut traffic and improve air quality, Colorado is expanding a program to give electric bicycles to low- and moderate-income residents. 

The Colorado Energy Office opened applications for its community access e-bike program on Thursday. It will award $910,000 in grants to six to 10 organizations with plans to provide e-bikes to income-qualified workers. Tribal governments, local governments and nonprofits are all eligible to apply.

"Most Americans, their vehicle trips are 10 miles or less," said Sarah Thorne, a senior program manager for the Colorado Energy Office. “E-bikes offer a great opportunity to change commuting habits.”

Climate-minded governments across the country are betting on e-bikes as a low-carbon alternative to cars. Denver kicked off the trend last spring, offering discounts for e-bikes purchased at local bike shops. It paused the rebates until next year after rabid demand exhausted the city's available funding. 

The state plans to launch its own $10 million rebate program next spring. Details are thin, but Thorne said the point-of-sale discounts would be available to all state residents below a certain income threshold.

Community access grants take a more targeted and tested approach to e-bike adoption. After the pandemic shut down public transportation, the Colorado Energy Office launched a mini-pilot program to provide e-bikes to 13 essential workers. It followed up with a full-fledged pilot program to fund projects at five community groups across the state. 

Participants tracked their commutes and grocery runs through a smartphone app developed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Early data show participants are using their e-bikes for between 20 and 50 percent of their total trips, depending on the program and time of year.

The new grants will build on that effort. Applicants can either provide free e-bikes — along with helmets, locks and other equipment — or establish programs to lend out e-bikes.

In either case, Thorne said organizations should explain how e-bikes would help a specific set of employees — like teachers or hospital workers — avoid solo vehicle trips. She noted one pilot program in Durango gave e-bikes to 16 low-income restaurant employees without convenient transit access. 

Another plus is a proposal with existing and sustainable revenue sources, Thorne said. 

Initial concepts are due by Dec. 15 and final applications must be submitted by Jan. 4, 2023. The state plans to notify winners in February 2023. 

The grants and upcoming rebates are funded by air quality legislation approved this year. That money runs out after two years, but there could be an appetite to extend the state's e-bike efforts. 

"We're hoping there might be some additional legislation this next session," Thorne said.