Aspen Experiments With Paying People Not to Drive Downtown

Aspen commuters will be able to use an app to earn free products for trying sustainable commuting. Photo: Miles App
Aspen commuters will be able to use an app to earn free products for trying sustainable commuting. Photo: Miles App

The Colorado resort city of Aspen is about to start bribing people not to drive downtown.

Next month, the Rocky Mountain enclave will being offering a range of rewards to commuters who shift from driving alone — a pilot program that hopes to reduce by 800 the number of cars driving into the congested city every day.

The city will begin a test phase next month with city employees. Participants will have to download and app called “Miles,” according to the Aspen Times. The app contains sensors that can determine whether the user is driving alone, carpooling, riding a bike or taking the bus.

As users accumulate miles from their transit, bike or group commutes, they will become eligible for prizes from national and local businesses ranging from a $5 coffee card to a ski pass at the top end. The City has budgeted $20,000 for prizes during the initial two-month trial, targeting about 350 city employees, and $375,000 for the full year next year, when 750 commuters will hopefully sign up. About $200,000 will be spent on marketing and recruiting participants. The rest will be spent on prizes.

As part of the effort, the city is also spending $1.3 million to improve amenities and service to the Brush Creek Intercept Lot, a park-and-ride facility. More bus service, tables, chairs, food trucks and micro-transit will be included.

About 70 percent of the money spent on the program will be from parking fees and tickets. The other 30 percent will come from the city’s general fund, the paper reports.

The program is an example of “Transportation Demand Management,” which seeks to reduce driving — and the attendant costs, especially expensive parking infrastructure — by offering incentives to commuters to discourage solo car commuting.  Colleges and hospitals in a few locations around the U.S. have pioneered the strategy, though the most successful programs also use items like daily-parking payment to discourage driving as well.

But it remains rare for an entire city to roll out transportation demand management (it’s far more common for urban areas to widen roads or add parking garages. Columbus’ free bus pass for downtown workers is an example of citywide transportation demand management. New technology like the Miles app may allow cities to offer carrots to downtown employees to leave their cars at home.

20 thoughts on Aspen Experiments With Paying People Not to Drive Downtown

  1. Am I the only one who is disturbed yet curious about the claim that “the app contains sensors that can determine whether the user is driving alone”?

  2. Interesting comment. Let me take a stab at it:

    What they actually monitor is position using the built in GPS of smartphones. If a user is at the same position as a bus, which has its own GPS for dispatching purposes, he is assumed to be on the bus. If traveling slower than auto traffic, it’s a bicycle. And if she is at the same location as other smartphones and they are moving at traffic speed, it’s a car pool.

    There may be more to it than that, but that’s the general idea. You are right of course that the app, being just software, can’t have sensors itself.

  3. It may be something similar to Carma Carpool’s approach, requiring multiple people in the carpool to have the app engaged. Similar to what Edward described, if my bus and I am engaged in the app at the same location, it would understand I’m riding it.

  4. Ahh, I mis-parsed their meaning (and their statement would be better worded as “…can determine whether the user is carpooling with other users of the app”). They’re interested in rewarding multiple people who have the app loaded, and who are carpooling. You could be carpooling with someone who doesn’t have the app, and the app will think you’re a single-occupant vehicle, if that’s what they’re doing.

  5. Sure; if the bus GPS dispatch is coordinated with app data, that would definitely make sense. As Kevin mentions above, the app would only be able to pair you in a carpool with other folks also running the app. But that’s part of the incentive, I imagine? My paranoid IT brain immediately jumped to thinking about ways you could detect any passengers, without stopping to consider what they’re actually trying to do. Whoops!

    As for bike vs. car, unless they have better algorithms than Google Maps, they’re going to have a lot of false positives from speed/accelerometer data (at least my own data regularly shows “car” trips reported for my daily bike commute). Still kudos to them for trying!

  6. When I lived in SoCal, for a short while I rode a van pool into Anaheim on the 91 Fwy. Using that van pool typically extended my commute by about an hour of total time. If I had chosen to drive instead, there is no way the prospect of a $5 gift card would have convinced me to stop driving. The cost in time would be prohibitive. If you want people to stop driving, you have to:

    1. Pay them for their time. Too expensive but it would work.
    2. Make the commute as much like a private auto as possible so the prospect doesn’t perceive a prohibitive time cost.

    I suppose a third way is to make driving so painful it changes the cost/benefit analysis. But then you risk losing them all together. People have options. They don’t have to accept your alternative. And it’s always possible to move economic concerns out of the central city.

  7. The third way is already happening. Driving in Aspen is painful, which is why they’re doing this.

  8. Reduce the parking spots by 800.
    Charge for parking. $10 a day for each $10000 of car value. Porches pay $80 a day to park.

  9. I think they did that decades ago; there’s no place to build parking spaces in Aspen unless you’re aware of something I’ve overlooked.

  10. That strategy of convincing people to live near where they work is not working so well in San Francisco. Urban planners may love density but people don’t. You can’t just impose it by fiat.

  11. Higher density developments sell out immediately in SF. It’s a supply problem, not a demand problem. Maybe you like the suburbs but don’t pretend to speak for everyone.

  12. You are looking at the problem the wrong way around. There is a severe housing shortage in SF. It’s not hard to move apartments under conditions of severe shortage. But there is no increase in density. People with money are bidding up the price, and driving out those who cannot afford the increase. This makes the whole “People should live near where they work” argument bitterly ironic. The real world produces very different outcomes.

    But why the housing shortage? Why are there $3000/Mon studios? Because housing isn’t being built in SF and hasn’t been for years. Why? Because the residents of SF (let’s call them “voters”) have constructed a system that makes it very very difficult. Why? Because they do not want to increase population density, and incur all the problems that come with it. That’s why there is a small YIMBY movement in SF – not that it will get anywhere.

  13. Most cities wouldn’t have to spend that much to make driving “painful.” The government already does so much to make car travel convenient and pleasant that many see those attributes as intrinsic to “private autos.” If cities stopped those practices, the experience of driving would change dramatically.

    The reality is that cars are bulky, clumsy, dangerous, smelly, loud, and require a good bit of attention to operate competently. If the city stops subsidizing parking by charging market rates for on-street spots and eliminating parking minimums, cars become much less appealing. Same for allocating public right-of-way in a manner that prioritizes human beings over machines: you end up with narrow lanes, low speed limits, and lanes for the exclusive use of bikes (and maybe e-scooters) and transit. Some cities are strictly limiting or eliminating car access to downtowns.

    When there’s a level playing field, many would choose to take modes that are active and fun, like walking or biking, or those that allow them to make use of their commute time, like transit.

    It sounds like Aspen has spent a lot of money to incentivize driving and will be now be simultaneously spending money to discourage it.

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