Boulder B-cycle and the 100-year flood

I left Boulder to return home to Los Angeles on the morning of September 11 feeling decidedly unaffected by the rain. It had been coming down for two days on and off, but it seemed ordinary. It was cloudy and wet, sure; but my flight was on time, AM traffic was moving at a steady pace, and it wasn’t yet a topic of conversation for local talk radio. It was just rain, after all.

Shortly after my departure, Boulder County would be thrust into the national spotlight after experiencing what experts are calling a 1000-year rain and a 100-year flood. At least four people died, 345 homes were destroyed, and the area suffered millions of dollars in structural damage.

And through all the flooding sat Boulder B-cycle, a 150 bike, 22-station bike share program in and around Downtown Boulder. The system was at Mother Nature’s mercy for eight days of unprecedented rain.

“We knew a storm was coming, but we didn’t know it would get that bad; it evolved so quickly,” said James Waddell, Director of Boulder B-cycle. By Thursday morning, September 12, it was too late for Waddell and his team to move any equipment to higher ground. Overnight, Boulder Creek had gone from a tranquil stream to a rushing force of destruction. Authorities were working on evacuating as many people as possible—nearly 2,000 by air and road–and no one was allowed into the area.

So, without the opportunity to remove any B-cycle equipment, the bikes and stations assumed their normal positions within the city’s streets as the rain poured. 17.15 inches had fallen by the time the clouds had cleared. Some stations were submerged in close to four feet of water, with the saddles barely breaching the surface, according to local police.

Waddell and his team expected the worst—but, keeping tabs on the system from safe distance, they noticed something peculiar as the flooding was at its peak.

The station closest to Boulder Creek (pictured below), where some of Boulder’s worst flooding occurred, was continuously active and online. One would think that if a station were dropped into a raging wall of water filled with debris, something would malfunction causing the station to lose power. But no, it remained in functioning—albeit, submerged order.


The 19th and Creek station, which was most affected by the Boulder County flood.

By the time the team was able to head back into the flood zone and assess the damage, they were rather astounded with what they saw. While it looked like the stations and bikes “had been dragged across the ocean floor,” the physical damage to the equipment was minimal. According to Waddell, only three of the 150 bikes suffered significant impairment and the stations, while wet, were all still operable.


Aside from some debris in the spokes, most Boulder B-cycle bikes faired well.

The system is now operating with 19 of its 22 stations and nearly a full fleet of bikes. Three stations will be offline until the immediate threat of flooding has passed as authorities have warned that one inch of rain may turn Boulder Creek back into the Colorado River.

Despite remaining relatively unscathed, the natural disaster offered many lessons to Waddell and his team. “It’s important to respect these 100-year flood zones. The next time we think heavy rains might come in, we’ll remove the bikes from those flood zones.”

And having a crisis communication plan is integral, according to Waddell. “You have to have those lines of communication where you can get messages to your members and get in contact with local authorities and resources to get the latest information.”

The Recovery


Olive in action.

To help aid in the recovery for the area, Boulder B-cycle has set up a creative donation mechanism—a green B-cycle bike named Olive. Amidst the throngs of red Boulder B-cycle bikes is one green bike, and for every ride taken on it Boulder B-cycle will donate $5 to relief efforts through the month of October.

“The Boulder community has always been very supportive of our bike sharing program, and we feel that rolling Olive out is the perfect way for us to give back,” said Waddell.

If you would like to donate to flood relief efforts in Boulder, click here.


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