Aspen’s free Downtowner to take offseason break

Due to financial constraints resulting from COVID-19, the city is reducing free shuttle from April to June

Aspen’s free Downtowner shuttles a community member past the Aspen Mountain gondola plaza on Friday, April 2, 2021. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the Downtowner will be reducing free shuttle services during the offseason. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

The popular free Downtowner transit service, which shuttles people within a defined area of town, is turning off its engines for two months due to budget constraints resulting from COVID-19.

The city of Aspen pays $540,500 a year to offer the app-based transit service in an attempt to reduce traffic and air pollution by providing an alternative to single-occupancy vehicles.

The Downtowner typically operates 365 days a year but the city’s transportation department is taking cost-saving measures by reducing transit services.

The April 16 to June 14 closure will save the city $90,000, according to John Krueger, transportation director for the municipal government.

He said shutting it down during offseason when demand is low isn’t as impactful as other times of the year. In addition, the Downtowner’s ridership has decreased because of the novel coronavirus.

“The Downtowner is restricted with capacity and ride sharing because of state (COVID-19) restrictions,” he said, noting that it’s capped at 50% capacity on public transit.

While last month Krueger said ridership was down 34% and share rides decreased 65% from levels experienced prior to the pandemic, they’ve improved recently.

“Ridership has been improving as the winter has progressed,” said Travis Gleason, co-founder of the Downtowner. “In the past month and a half we’ve moved much closer to 15 to 20% off (year over year) ridership numbers.”

The city’s transportation department, which pays for in-town bus service and other alternative modes of transit, is partially funded with revenue generated by parking fees.

The parking department also has seen a decline in revenue due to COVID-19. The city has not charged $8 a day in residential neighborhoods surrounding the core since the pandemic hit in March of 2020.

That has resulted in about $200,000 in revenue loss, according to Mitch Osur, director of parking and downtown services.

Paid parking in residential areas will be reinstated on May 3, he said.

Krueger said the Downtowner suspended operations last year for three and a half months when the pandemic first hit, which saved close to $120,000.

Gleason said it has been a challenge to operate under restrictions for over a year.

“It’s been a challenging year for all, and we appreciate the hard work from our driver team, and the support of our ridership,” he said. “We have been following state guidelines and have increased cleaning activities.

“It’s been manageable but we’re certainly looking forward to getting back to a more normal world and way of operating.”

Krueger anticipates more normalcy this summer.

“I think we are going to be busy,” he said. “We hope the state eases some of these restrictions.”

Gleason concurred.

“It is unfortunate to have to pause service this spring, but overall we felt it would be the most advantageous time with summer and the rest of the year looking closer to normal conditions and ridership demand,” he said.