Taking a ride on the Downtowner | AspenTimes.com

Taking a ride on the Downtowner

Fresh out of college during the heart of the economic recession, 22-year-old Stephen Murray said he had no choice but to create his own job.

"I had a psychology degree in 2009," Murray said with a laugh. "It didn't really qualify me for much."

Growing up amid the hustle and bustle of South Florida, Murray decided there must be a more efficient way to travel downtown in crowded cities than anything that was available at the time.

"I just thought there has to be a friendlier, faster, more convenient way to get around," said Murray, reflecting upon his time spent behind the wheel in bumper-to-bumper traffic or communicating with cab drivers in his hometown of Delray Beach, Florida.

With no kids, bills or much to lose, the unemployed college graduate thought, "Why not try to start a company?"

In the summer of 2012, Murray and two of his buddies did exactly that.

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With the goal of providing a more convenient way to get around downtown, Murray, Travis Gleason and Ryan Spaargaren started Downtowner Inc., a free, on-demand ride service via compact electric vehicles.

You've likely seen or ridden in one these petite vehicles, which bear more resemblance to a golf cart than a traditional automobile, in town this summer.

Through a partnership with the city, Aspen is now the fourth city and first mountain town to offer the Downtowner service.

The other cities that have welcomed Downtowner Inc.: Delray Beach; Boca Raton, Florida; and Newport, California, respectively, are coastal metropolises that boast populations between six and 12 times larger than Aspen.

Despite this stark contrast, Murray believes Aspen is the perfect city to offer the Downtowner service.

Looking at both the quantitative and qualitative outcomes of the service during the first half of its trial period with the city of Aspen, city Parking Director Mitch Osur seems to agree.

The city's decision to implement the $89,250 service between June 15 and Sept. 15 is part of its four-part approach to address the lack of available parking and congestion in Aspen's downtown core.

The city is financing the program, which costs about $1,000 per day, through a supplemental budget that the council approved in October 2015, Osur said, as well as some Parking Department funds.

Doubling the price to park anywhere in the 16 blocks that make up the city's downtown core for the months of June, July and August, as well as pushing its "Drive Less" program and expanding the WE-Cycle bike-share transit system are some of the other ways the city of Aspen hopes to resolve its traffic and parking issues.

"The important message here is that no one thing's going to fix the parking and traffic problem," Osur said. "It's our biggest problem in town. And the most difficult one to solve."

With the Parking Department's "four-pronged attack," Osur is happy to report that he's seen a change downtown so far this summer.

"We're seeing increased turnover in the core and there are empty spaces in the core on a regular basis," he said. "It's working exactly as planned."

Tracking the number of Downtowner rides each week and seeing where the rides are going also provides insight into to whether the program is meeting the city's goal to get people out of their cars, Osur said.

For example, between July 11 and 17, the Downtowner provided 34 rides from town to the Hickory House, 63 rides to or from City Market and 49 rides to or from Clark's Market.

"These are cars off the road," Osur said, assuming that most people would not have otherwise walked to the Hickory House from town or lugged loads of groceries home by hand.

In its first 13 days in Aspen, from June 17 to 30, the Downtowner provided 746 free, tip-based rides to 1,743 passengers. From July 4 to 10, there were 440 rides and 1,094 passengers. From July 11 to 17, there were 492 rides and 1,201 passengers.

What's more, Osur said, is that "people really seem to love" the service.

Osur said the only group to not give glowing remarks is High Mountain Taxi.

"They're not totally happy with us," he said. "And I get that. But we're trying to work with the taxis extremely well and limit the damage."

High Mountain Taxi declined to comment when reached by The Aspen Times.

The cab company aside, Osur said he has "received nothing but positive feedback" from local residents and visitors, along with restaurant and hotel managers and retailers.

On Tuesday, first-time Downtowner passenger Richard Geiski said he thinks the service is a "fantastic" idea.

"I'm surprised no one has thought of it before," he said, adding that he loves that the vehicle is environmentally friendly.

"I think the more companies like this, the better off the city's going to be and the environment's going to be," said Geiski, who has lived in the valley for at least two decades.

"It's better than Uber," said Aspen visitor and Downtowner passenger Sofia Pokrzywa, who also reported a positive experience with the service.

With both services' user-friendly, app-based approaches, it's easy to draw a parallel the Downtowner and Uber.

While acknowledging the similarities between the two businesses, Murray said the Downtowner is not a competitor to any taxi or transportation service that already exists.

"What we're doing isn't replacing anything," he said. "We're supplementing it.

"There's still a really big need for fast, friendly, local service within the downtown core that gets you from point A to point B."

erobbie@aspentimes.com

To request a ride, download the smart-phone application, “Downtowner.”

The Downtowner provides rides between the base of Silver Queen Gondola to the end of Mill Street and from Original curve to about two-blocks of the Music Tent on Eighth Street, according to city parking director Mitch Osur.

The rides are free but tips are encouraged.

For more information, visit http://www.ridedowntowner.com.

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