Lyft Car

A Lyft Driver’s car, Taken during South by Southwest 2016.

The city of Aspen on Tuesday announced it is partnering with Lyft, the on-demand transit firm, to test alternative modes of transportation for three months next summer in an effort to reduce traffic congestion.

But the owner of one local taxi company lambasted the public-private partnership, saying the municipality is aiding a multibillion-dollar conglomerate in stepping “on all of the local providers.”

Todd Gardner of High Mountain Taxi said he was particularly incensed by how he and other ground-transportation representatives learned the news: in a meeting Tuesday morning, shortly before the announcement, that was purportedly to gather input.

“I don’t think input was what they were looking for,” he said of city officials.

The partnership is part of the city’s Shift effort, a $2.5-million program two years in the making that aims to address congestion by testing new transit modes, with the hope that single-vehicle occupancy goes down. Using Lyft’s app, residents, commuters and visitors will be able to use, for free or at a reduced rate, electric bikes and scooters, dog-friendly shuttles from the Brush Creek Intercept Lot and shared-ride services, a city press release says.

Features of the transit services that will be new to town include the option to bring dogs, gear and tools on free shuttles. The vehicles will be allowed to travel to Aspen via designated bus lanes, decreasing travel times up- and downvalley, the release says. These shuttles will also travel to destinations that are not currently served by a direct BRT bus, such as the hospital.

Ashley Perl, the city’s climate action manager, said Tuesday the pricing structure for the shared rides has not been finalized and that the city has a March 1 deadline in the contract to do so.

“We are hoping to subsidize the fares so that the rides are a fixed rate to the rider,” she said. “Lyft is also offering the city a discount, so we won’t be paying at the usual Lyft rate.”

Details on the amounts of the possible subsidy and the discount were not available.

Mayor Steve Skadron said in the release that the partnership is “an incredible opportunity to mobilize Aspen’s in-town and commuter drivers to proactively choose from many viable options other than their personal vehicles.

“The whole idea of Shift is to realize what is possible and set an example for other small-size cities,” he said, adding that transforming the transit experience is one of the city council’s top nine goals.

Shift, which is set to debut on June 8, 2019, and run through Sept. 2, 2019, will involve Lyft contracting with a local company to provide mini-buses and drivers. The free, dog-friendly buses “will show up on the Lyft app as an option, and you can ‘book’ a seat on these,” Perl said. “These routes will be ‘crowd-sourced.’ That is to say, we will understand, through the app and surveys, where people want to go and then Lyft will create routes as needed.”

Reading the room

The mood at Tuesday’s meeting was grim, Gardner said, and morale at his 30-vehicle company is low.

“We’re very dedicated to the locals and visitors,” he said of High Mountain Taxi, a 40-year company that he has owned since 2001. “For the city to bring in a multibillion-dollar company to step on all of the local providers, I don’t think is right. And they’re using community tax dollars to do it.

“They know they are going to take business from us, and I don’t think they really care.”

He said the only member of Aspen City Council to attend the meeting at the police station was Adam Frisch, and he believes Frisch is the only one on council who knows what it takes to run a small business in Aspen.

“I give him a lot of credit for being there,” Gardner said. “We have a cost structure that is much higher than a company from Silicon Valley that is wanting to go public and make a lot of money. And the city hasn’t looked at doing this with local providers. That should have been a requirement.”

He was also unhappy that the city would not disclose where the city Lyft program will operate. Perl said the service areas aren’t finalized, and there is a March 1 deadline on that as well. The shared rides are intended to serve neighborhoods around Aspen, she said when asked if the Castle and Maroon Creek areas, Red Mountain and Cemetery Lane are to be included (Gardner believes they will be).

Silicon Valley connection

Lyft’s partnership with the city originated through a relationship between Skadron and its COO, Jon McNeill, according to an email obtained by the Aspen Daily News that the mayor sent Tuesday morning to the Pitkin County commissioners.

Skadron wrote that a few months ago, McNeil approached him about what eventually came to be called Shift by Lyft. They first “met two years earlier when he was the president of Tesla and I was pitching the lab to next-gen mobility providers (and to anybody who would listen!) as you know,” the mayor wrote. “In our conversations, Jon expressed that he was moved by our community’s vision toward [single-occupancy vehicle] alternatives and our commitment to demonstrating the future of transport in Aspen and our region. He asked if there was a role for Lyft.

“I’ll spare the details, but after lengthy negotiations and discussions we have agreed to enter into a partnership to bring a fully integrated transit platform to Aspen. A final agreement was reached [Monday].”

In addition to the micro-buses and shared rides, there will be an as-yet-undetermined number of dockless electric scooters and electric bikes, owned and operated by Lyft, available for a fee. Users will be able to reserve and pay for the options using the company’s app. In addition, the Shift partnership will offer increased opportunities for people to sign up to give rides on the Lyft platform, the release says.

That last part did not sit well with Gardner, who noted the city-run Downtowner shuttle service “took a whole segment of business from me.

“What’s next? Where does it end?”

McNeill said his company is “honored to play a foundational role to achieve city council’s goal of reshaping Aspen’s mobility landscape to become less reliant on single-occupancy vehicle trips. Mayor Skadron is a progressive leader with a vision for the positive impact public and private sectors can have when they work together to improve lives through transportation.”

Chad is a Contributing Editor for Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at chad@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @chad_the_scribe.

Contibuting Editor