Aspen’s free on-demand taxis will stiffen competition for riders
The Aspen Times
This summer Aspen residents and guests won’t need to pay a taxi service to ferry them through downtown. That’s because the city will roll out an on-demand taxi program, using electric vehicles, that is free to users.
By a 5-0 vote at their Monday meeting, Aspen City Council approved a contract with Florida-based Downtowner Inc., which serves a handful of resort towns with its on-demand, electric-car taxi service.
The three-month pilot program, which will cost the city $89,250, will offer an app that’s available on Androids and iPhones. App users will be able to schedule rides as well as learn the estimated pick-up time and driver availability.
Passengers won’t have to pay a fee, but gratuity is suggested, according to a discussion among City Council members and Assistant City Manager Randy Ready. Tips can be paid in cash or via the app, Ready said.
The city’s funding of the program, which will be used in June, July and August, will come through $50,000 from the transportation fund and another $39,250 from the Parking Department.
The free rides certainly will entice passengers, but others were questioning the use of public funds for a service that could hurt private cab and limo companies.
“What about the other transportation companies that are currently trying to make it?” asked resident Peter Grenney during the citizen comment portion of Monday’s meeting.
Likewise, Richard Lamping, owner of Rocky Mountain limo, said the service will hit the wallets of private drivers who rely on business from the downtown core. Many residents who live in Hunter Creek or Centennial often pony up cash for rides from downtown, he said.
“It will definitely hurt their business because a significant amount of their business is real close to downtown,” said Lamping, noting his company focuses more on longer trips and low-key, wealthy passengers.
Aspen’s prominent cab service, High Mountain Taxi, wasn’t notified of the pilot program, said owner Todd Gardner.
“It’s surprising that the city never reached out to us and asked us for our input,” he said, noting he was unaware of the program until Tuesday. “That’s our business and we provide that service within the city of Aspen, and we do quite a bit of it.”
Gardner said the pilot program, combined with the city’s other free transportation offerings such as the Crosstown Shuttle and the Galena Shuttle, will make it tougher on private transportation firms.
The complimentary taxi service, which could be extended into a seasonal or year-round service, is part of the city’s efforts to limit traffic and congestion in town.
“The pilot program is part of the multi-faceted effort to reduce traffic; reduce congestion in the core; increase the use of alternative modes of transportation and the use of outlying parking locations; and to determine the feasibility of innovative next generation mobility technologies,” reads Ready’s memo to the council.
Stephen Murray, CEO of Downtown Inc., said he plans to hire local drivers, starting with five or six.
The service will be available from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week. Trips will be limited to the boundaries of the Castle Creek bridge on the east, the Cooper Avenue bridge on the east, the Roaring Fork River on the north and Aspen Mountain on the south, according to a city memo.
“We’re going to hire from the local employment base,” Murray said Tuesday. “It’s really important for us that we have guys and girls that are driving the cars and know the city like the back of their hand. We want our drivers to recommend that little hole-in-the-wall or an event that’s going on in the city that weekend. It’s really important that we get great ambassadors.”
Downtowner Inc. will start with a fleet of five Polaris Gem E6 electric vehicles, which can seat five passengers and one driver.
“They are not anything Aspen is not used to,” Murray said. “They will fit in really well downtown.”
Downtowner Inc. currently offers its services in Delray Beach and Boca Raton, Florida, and Newport Beach, California, Murray said. Another one is planned for Tampa, Florida, he said.
The exteriors of its vehicles have advertisements, similar to a metro bus, but Ready said they won’t do that in Aspen.