Demand on Aspen’s free ride service taxes electric carts

The free Downtowner transit service funded by the city of Aspen has become so popular that its current fleet of electric carts can’t meet the demand on their own, so officials are looking at other vehicles to retain service levels.

What’s recently been added to the mix is the Chevy Bolt, an all-electric vehicle that is used mostly on the weekends when ridership demand increases, said John Krueger, the city’s transportation director.

He said while no changes are being made to the fleet of the electric Polaris GEM cars, the Bolt might serve as the alternative this winter.

The GEM vehicles have been plagued with electrical problems that require lengthy diagnoses and repair timeframes, at times eliminating half the fleet, Krueger noted in a memo to Aspen City Council earlier this spring.

The backup vehicle used this past winter was a 15-passenger shuttle that was well-received by customers but of concern to some council members because it was not electric, Krueger said.

“The shuttle has been returned and GEM vehicles are wholly operating the service,” Krueger wrote. “However, the GEM fleet continues experiencing electrical issues and is becoming an operational problem due to frequent charging needs.”

Travis Gleason, the chief operating officer for the Downtowner, explained that the larger, higher range battery GEM cars are made-to-order vehicles.

“This results in longer lead times for parts and fixes,” he said via email this week. “Due to increased usage of the GEM vehicles during all seasons, we are exploring the idea of a mixed fleet.”

While the Bolt has been brought on for busy weekends, it also serves as backup to the GEM vehicles.

Krueger said he will bring vehicle options in front of council this fall when it is considering the 2020 budget.

The city currently spends about $500,000 a year on the Downtowner, which offers free rides in a specified geographical area that is predominately in the downtown core and immediate surrounding areas.

The app-based service was introduced as a pilot program in 2016 with the intent of providing short-distance, on-demand transportation in the downtown core, with the purpose of reducing parking congestion, according to Krueger.

Based on ridership statistics, the program has met the city’s goal — 36% of riders say they would’ve driven their cars if they hadn’t taken the Downtowner.

The average trip distance is 0.63 miles with a four-minute ride. The top drop-off locations are Rubey Park, the gondola and City Market.

Ridership has skyrocketed since the Downtowner began.

In 2017, it carried 47,000 passengers, and more than 70,000 in 2018.

So far this year, its passenger count is over 37,000, which is an increase of 22% from 2018 for the same period, according to Krueger.

Gleason said in order to keep wait times to under 10 minutes and operate the service 12 hours a day, the Bolt has been a good addition to the fleet.

“The Bolt provided the most cost effective, 100% electric vehicle option,” he wrote in his email. “The Bolt is roughly half as expensive to operate than the GEM. No costs have been added to our contract to date. So far, rider feedback on the Bolt has been very positive and other all-electric options could be considered in the future.”

The Downtowner is one offering in the city’s alternative transit program; others include free in-town bus service and the free WE-Cycle bike sharing.

The current contract with the Downtowner is valid for as long as five years.

Wildly popular among locals and guests, the Downtowner experienced some growing pains when it first debuted here.

The company had to pay the Colorado Department of Labor $20,000 in back wages to drivers last year after it received ill-advised legal advice.

Gleason said the service launched using a commonplace structure of drivers being independent agents and not employees. Their earnings were tip-based, which city officials knew about.

After the first year of operation, the Downtowner proposed to council that drivers become employees and receive a wage, rather than rely on tips as compensation.

“This was in an effort to make the program more congruent with the rest of the free, in-town options that Aspen provides as public transit (RFTA routes … We-Cycle),” Gleason wrote.

More than a year later, the Department of Labor decided that the employee structure was more appropriate, and asked that the Downtowner pay wages for the initial period when it had structured drivers as independent agents.

There was no fine or penalty and the Downtowner paid the wages with no cost to the city, Gleason said.

During that time, council asked that drivers receive a higher hourly wage and not rely as much on tips to keep the service in line with other free transit options.

Gleason said the Downtowner has achieved that goal, plus others.

“This program has helped Aspen avoid releasing up to 19 tons of CO2 into our atmosphere through the use of electric vehicles,” he wrote. “We’ve also proved to be up to 25% more cost effective than some in town fixed routes …

“For the past three years, Downtowner has been proud to be one of the many tools that help solve Aspen’s parking and transit issues.”