Aspen mayor questions free in-town transit service
Downtowner by the numbers
Date range: Jan. 1-Sept. 10
Ridership: 57,780 (24 percent increase over 2018)
Average wait time: 9:05 minutes
Average rider experience rating: 4.93 out of 5
CO2 emissions avoided: Up to 14 tons
Personal car trips replaced: 12,251
Average trip distance: 1 mile or more: 12 percent; .5 miles to 1 mile, 55 percent; less than .5 miles, 33 percent.
* Source: City of Aspen
Aspen’s elected officials are re-examining the city’s half-million dollar annual expenditure for the free Downtowner transit service.
“From my point of view, my question is the size of the expenditure,” Mayor Torre said last week. “I don’t know if it is servicing what we intended it to be. … I want to know alternatives.”
The Downtowner micro-transit service began three years ago and was intended to provide short-distance, on-demand transportation within or near the downtown core in an effort to reduce parking and traffic congestion, according to John Krueger, the city’s director of transportation.
From January to Sept. 10, 83% of the 57,780 rides given were less than a mile, according to Krueger.
The Florida-based Downtowner operates under an annually renewable five-year contract with the city that expires in 2022. The expenditure is $540,000 a year for the service, which is limited by geographical boundaries to keep ridership in the downtown core.
“For $500,000 the city can probably buy a few vehicles and hire drivers and keep it local,” Torre said, adding that perhaps the local cab company, High Mountain Taxi, would want the business. “I have concerns with the financial and service nature of it.”
Todd Gardner, owner of High Mountain Taxi, couldn’t be reached for comment.
Torre first voiced his concerns at a work session on the transportation department’s 2020 budget last week.
He asked for more information about who is receiving the benefit of services for the amount of money the city is spending.
Ridership has grown dramatically since the app-based service debuted in summer 2016 as a pilot program. During that initial year, 22,000 people rode the electric golf cart-type GEM cars, according to Krueger.
In 2018, more than 70,000 rides were given, and ridership this year is up 24% as of Sept. 10.
Krueger told council he expects between 85,000 and 90,000 rides will be given this year.
He estimated that the city’s subsidy translates into between $6 and $7 a ride, which is comparable to the valley-wide Roaring Fork Transportation Authority’s bus service of $4 per rider.
Travis Gleason, the chief operating officer for the Downtowner, said because the fleet has changed to three electric Chevy Bolts and three electric GEM cars, the company will be more cost effective than it has in the past.
The Downtowner is relying more on the Chevy Bolts because the GEM vehicles have been plagued with electrical problems that require lengthy diagnoses and repair time frames, at times eliminating half the fleet.
Gleason said the Chevy Bolts are more cost effective to operate, and there will be between one and four vehicles from the fleet in operation at any given time this winter.
“We’re able to put more vehicles out there and move more people this year,” he said, adding the city’s cost for the Downtowner is comparable with other in-town transit services that are subsidized. “We’re proud of the cost effectiveness of our program.”
He said he’s happy to provide information to council members, some of who have been in office for only four months, to help them understand the service.
“They are getting acquainted with the different programs and are doing their jobs understanding the budgets,” Gleason said. “I would expect them to ask questions.”
Council is expected to discuss the Downtowner service at a work session in the coming months.
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This coming spring and summer, Galena Street in downtown Aspen may look a lot different, with bicyclist and pedestrians taking priority.