An uncertain ride for Uber in Aspen

Karl Herchenroeder
The Aspen Times
Officials plan to contact Uber if the ride-sharing company is operating in Aspen without a business license. This screenshot shows the Aspen network's lone driver.

While ride-sharing applications such as Uber and Lyft have soared in popularity in major cities across the world, the jury is still out on the Uber experiment in Aspen.

Formally announced in 2013, Uber service in Aspen has been sporadic. On Thursday afternoon, there was one driver available, and he said that to his knowledge, he’s the only one working in the area. Corporate representatives in Denver have told him there might not be enough demand in Aspen.

In addition to a lack of demand, the San Francisco-based company may soon face action from city officials. According to city spokeswoman Mitzi Rapkin, there is no business license on file for Uber, which would mean the business is operating illegally. It’s unclear how often Uber drivers have been giving rides in Aspen since 2013, but it’s clear that the company does not have a license.

“If they are operating here we will ask them to get a business license,” Rapkin wrote in an email Thursday.

Uber representatives could not be reached for comment.

The smartphone application serves as a liaison between driver and passenger. Drivers operate their own vehicles, which must be from 2005 or newer. There is no cash transfer at the end of the ride, as all transactions are completed electronically through smartphones.

Local resident Peter Grenney is an ardent supporter of transportation providers such as Uber. Though he’s never had any use for it in Aspen, he said he uses Uber all the time when he travels. Job opportunities and public-transportation solutions were among the pros he listed with the service. He said city governments could take advantage of this technology, which would allow them to employ much less capital-intensive transportation. As an example, he described the situation at the Burlingame affordable-housing complex, where homeowners are requesting greater bus service. While some estimates put the cost in the $1.6 million range for additional service, Grenney suggested what he thinks would be a cheaper solution: allowance distribution for Uber service.

“I hope the city considers things that are not as capital-intensive that are going to be part of the fabric of our transportation in the near future,” Grenney said.

In cities such as Denver, Uber and Lyft have stoked wars with taxi companies, with the latter arguing that these app services need to be regulated, inspected and taxed just like traditional forms of fee-based transport. Another criticism is that the presence of unmarked cars for hire increases safety risks. In 2014, Robert McBride, president of Metro Taxi in Denver, linked the practice to sexual-assault risks.

An employee with High Mountain Taxi in Aspen, who requested anonymity, said Thursday that his company is too concerned with its own operation to worry about Uber. He said the presence of Uber seems to increase during the winter holidays and large events such as the Winter X Games. He pointed out that the ride-sharing service is finding slim demand in mountain towns.

“To me, it doesn’t seem feasible in a market as small as Aspen,” he said. “We have a hard time making it here. … Uber works in a big city. The economics are there.”