City of Aspen looks to extend its offering of free rides in town; get cars off the road | AspenTimes.com

City of Aspen looks to extend its offering of free rides in town; get cars off the road

The app-based, on-demand transit service, The Downtowner, picks up clients on Main Street on a recent afternoon. The Downtowner’s contract is up at the end of April and an RFP closed this week. Three other entities have submitted bids for the business.

Four transit companies have bid to provide free rides around the city of Aspen, including the current provider, the Downtowner, whose contract is up in April.

The Florida-based, on-demand transportation company has been contracted with the city since 2016 to take people around town in its fleet of electric golf-cart vehicles. What began as a trial for that summer has turned into almost three years of service. In total, the city has spent more than $540,000 for the Downtowner through January, according to the company's CEO, Stephen Murray.

The expense is part of the city's multi-pronged approach to reduce people's reliance on their cars and to increase alternative transportation options. The municipal government also subsidizes free in-town bus service and the WE-cycle bike-share program.

Murray reported that nearly 80,000 people have used the Downtowner in Aspen since its inception. And growth continues, with month-over-month ridership increases as much as 43 percent. Murray said January ridership increased 39 percent over the same month last year.

With anticipation of the Downtowner contract ending in April, the city issued a request for proposals at the end of 2017. Three other competing app-based transit companies submitted bids — Orlando-based O-Cartz, The Gotcha Group out of South Carolina and TransLoc Inc., based in North Carolina and recently acquired by Ford Motor Co.

A selection committee is scheduled to meet this week to evaluate the proposals. The criteria is based on who might be the best fit as well as the cost of the service, according to Rebecca Hodgson, who handles purchasing and RFPs for the city. The committee's recommendation will then go before City Council for approval.

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The RFP spells out what the applicants are expected to provide, with the one-year contract beginning May 1. The city is offering two one-year renewals to whichever provider is selected.

Each company's bid has not been made public but Murray confirmed via email that the Downtowner's submission entails more than just door-to-door transit service.

"We're always evolving our platform," he wrote to The Aspen Times. "We recently launched our carpooling technology, which groups nearby parties heading in the same direction, into one vehicle. Our RFP submission outlined some other tech developments geared towards increasing efficiency, as well as rider experience. It also proposed an increase in fleet size to handle our growing ridership."

The city's contract with the Downtowner has not gone without some controversy. Other transportation providers like High Mountain Taxi have objected to the city subsidizing a competing service. Taxi drivers have told council that the service has severely cut into their business. And some residents have voiced their opinions that the city could be spending taxpayer money in other ways.

But council has remained steadfast in its mission of reducing traffic, CO2 emissions and the use of single-occupant vehicles. Most riders use the Downtowner for short trips to places like the grocery store, bars and restaurants, or the Silver Queen Gondola.

Murray said his company's values continue to be in step with the city's, as well as other transportation systems.

"We've also begun to work more closely with RFTA on cross-promotional materials, (and) one of our main focuses is providing a first/last mile connection to their existing lines," Murray wrote via email. "In a survey this past October, we asked 465 Aspen riders the following question: 'Have you ever used Downtowner instead of your personal vehicle?' 91.4 percent said 'yes.'"

csackariason@aspentimes.com