Free ride service hits Aspen’s streets


City-funded program runs through Sept. 15

With Aspen’s city-funded, downtown core free ride service up and running, the head of the company providing the rides said he does not think his electric-cart-like vehicles compete with taxis and other local transportation services.

The Downtowner operates a fleet of five, six-passenger vehicles that are available on demand from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. seven days a week using the company’s smartphone app. The city is paying the company $89,250 — just shy of $1,000 per day — for the service that runs from June 15 through Sept. 15.

The city hopes the ability to get free rides around the downtown core and West End neighborhoods will result in fewer cars on the road. The service is tied to the recently implemented parking-fare hike, which increased by 50 percent the rates charged at downtown meters for the summer.

The primary reason that Stephen Murray, CEO of the Florida-based Downtowner, doesn’t see his service as competing with taxis, for-hire car services and transportation provided by hotels is the restricted service area. The Downtowner is authorized to operate only from the downtown core to Seventh Street in the West End. The music tent and Aspen Meadows campus is a few blocks outside the service-area boundary, and the Centennial and Hunter Creek apartments also are not included.

“The hotels I’ve spoken with … they were extremely excited because their vehicle goes to the airport and back,” said Murray, a Florida resident who was introduced to Aspen a few years ago and set his sights on bringing the Downtowner here. The service also operates in Delray Beach, Fla., Newport Beach, Calif., and is preparing to debut in Tampa, Fla., and Manhattan Beach, Calif.

He added that, “A downtown hotel with many vehicles was really excited about the service because they don’t have to worry about taking people to City Market, which is three blocks away.”

Since beginning operations last week, the company has provided 294 rides to 655 passengers, according to numbers provided by Downtowner and the city. The vehicles are dog-friendly.

The typical profile is someone looking to get across the downtown core from their hotel to a restaurant, run an errand down to the post office or catch a ride out to dinner from a West End residence, Murray said.

High Mountain Taxi representatives have criticized the city for launching the service, saying it will cut into their business, which includes short-haul rides around town. The company’s owner could not be reached for comment Friday.

City parking director Mitch Osur said it was a mistake not to reach out to High Mountain earlier in the process. He said he met with company representatives recently, hoping to smooth over the conflict.

Downtowner drivers carry High Mountain Taxi cards in the vehicles and hand them to passengers who want a ride outside the service area, Osur noted. He added that giving rides outside the service area is a fireable offense for the eight drivers working for the Downtowner.

Those drivers are independent contractors who are paid only through tips. They pay the Downtowner a $5 “maintenance fee” per shift, Murray said. So far, the tips have been good, and the drivers are averaging around $20 an hour, he said.

Kevin Smiddy, owner of the Smiddy Limo car service, said he doesn’t see the Downtowner as competing with his business, which revolves around high-end clients chartering vehicles for longer trips or an entire evening.

But Smiddy said he would have liked the chance to provide the service, saying that with the “hundred thousand dollar grant,” he could have outfitted golf carts for the short-haul rides and kept the business local. While quick trips around the core are not his company’s focus, he said he would be interested in bringing the business his company’s way.

The Downtowner approached the city about launching the service here, and municipal officials issued a request for proposals. The Downtowner was the only company to submit a bid. Smiddy said he was not aware the city was looking for bids on the project.

“You’ve got to give the guy credit who came up with the idea,” he said.