Mountain Express optimistic about future of FirstTracks program

“More than doubled our ridership”

By Kendra Walker

During a February 20 Mt. Crested Butte town council work session, Mountain Express executive director Jeremy Herzog shared a 2023 report including an update on the new FirstTracks on-demand service that began this winter. He also shared a similar report with the Crested Butte town council during their March 4 meeting. 

In partnership with Downtowner, the Mountain Express rolled out the service in November to serve north Mt. Crested Butte areas that didn’t have bus shuttle service and to replace what they have described as the underperforming Columbine/Snodgrass and Summer Condo bus routes. Through the FirstTracks smartphone app or a phone call, anyone in the service area can request a ride from a FirstTracks van that will picks them up and transports them anywhere in the designated service area daily from 7:15 a.m. to 12:15 a.m. FirstTracks does not run through areas served by the Three Seasons or Crystal/Castle bus loops. Typically, there are three vans out at the same time, including an ADA accessible van, for a combination of 26 available seats.

Herzog said FirstTracks was the first new winter service in almost 20 years, and it is intended to help Mountain Express serve the entire north Mt. Crested Butte community. “Out the gate it’s gone incredibly well,” he said. “We’re more than doubling our ridership.”

He shared that through January, the service saw 20,099 riders, which is up 108% from last year’s Columbine/Snodgrass bus route. Ridership began to grow the second week of December and the trend of serving more riders than the previous bus route continued into January. According to the Mountain Express website, FirstTracks served 800 riders on New Year’s Eve, with minimal wait times.

On average, folks wait 5.5 minutes for a ride, and 93% of the wait times are under 15 minutes. Sixty percent of riders are coming from the old bus route service zone, and 40% of riders are in the new service zone that didn’t previously have easy access to transit.

“We’ve had a lot of positive feedback,” said Herzog, noting that the average rating of rides is 4.96 out of 5. “We get occasional negative reviews as well, and anything less than a 5-star review we investigate to see what happened.”

“Are you seeing any trends?” asked Mt. Crested Butte mayor Nicholas Kempin. 

“Most of them have been day-to-day challenges we’ve resolved. To me, it’s run of the mill or newness stuff, for example, the driver picked up the wrong passenger, or was speeding or the van turned around in someone’s driveway. These are coaching moments in our day-to-day operations.”

Herzog stressed that FirstTracks is still a pilot program through this summer and some operational details lagged during the initial launch, including installing the van wraps and ski racks and figuring out parking spots and staffing schedules based on ridership patterns. 

However, he finds the positive ridership experiences and immediate outcomes to be very promising. Herzog said there have been minimal operational challenges, and the team has been able to make adjustments to improve the program’s effectiveness. For example, a phone in the Mt. Crested Butte Visitor’s Center is now available to use for requesting FirstTracks rides. 

“We still have eight weeks left in the ski season, and we’ll continue to monitor wait times and ridership to ensure we’re successful.” He said Mountain Express will work with Downtowner to conduct a customer survey at the end of the season and issue a formal evaluation of the pilot program based on metrics to guide future programming and budgetary discussions. The summer service will be executed from May 26 to September 29. 

Possible tweaks?

Herzog suggested the possibility of moving all the FirstTracks vehicles to 14-passenger transit vans that can combine multiple trips. “It will increase ride times and wait times, but it could reduce operating costs and our carbon footprint by having less vehicles out, especially during the week.”

Herzog said that looking ahead, FirstTracks would hopefully be brought in-house and potentially utilized for additional services, such as the Late Night Taxi, transit to trailheads like Gothic or Peanut Lake, and servicing other communities right outside of town such as Meridian Lake, Buckhorn, Skyland and CB South. 

“I don’t know if they would replace any current fixed route operations,” he said. “With the density in the lower half of Mt. Crested Butte, I’m skeptical on-demand could replace the Crystal/Castle route,” he said to both councils. 

“Our goal is to serve members of the community. All of Mt. Crested Butte is getting access to free public transportation,” he said. “To me it’s a win for the whole service area and a win for the additional service area.”

“I’m interested in the benefit of the service from a safety perspective too,” said Crested Butte council member Jason MacMillan, referring to folks driving to town at night to have drinks and dinner. “As it develops it would be interesting to have data around keeping people safe.” 

“There are a lot of opportunities for micro transit and how to solve the last mile problem,” said Crested Butte mayor Ian Billick. “I would hope using innovations on transit would be a big part of that sweet spot of how we can improve services. Where is the most bang for the buck in terms of the community that are not served? You nailed that with FirstTracks in Mt. Crested Butte. There are other communities  with limited access, it would be nice to see that out by Skyland or Meridian Lake.”

Lessons learned

Herzog said more community outreach and communication could have taken place prior to changing a service and noted that as an opportunity for improvement moving forward. “Continual outreach will be critical to success, especially for new visitors.”

“Do you have ideas on what we could do in the future to manage the emotional response to change and when we’re considering changes to routes?” Billick asked. 

“A lot of it comes down to better expectation-setting upfront,” said Herzog. “That was definitely a miss, we should have included a public outreach component and look at what it means to the community to change out one service for another. Once we made the decision, we could have invested more energy into the actual public outreach in terms of community when and why it was going to be deployed. That would have limited some of the emotional response so people wouldn’t be as caught off-guard. We want to be more communicative.”

Five-year transit plan

For Mountain Express as a whole, Herzog said that the organization saw 608,181 riders in 2023, up 13% from the previous year. It carried 938 dogs, 3,198 senior van riders and 3,693 Late Night Taxi riders. 

Herzog noted that Mountain Express has one of the lowest costs per passenger compared to similar mountain/ski communities at $4.89 per person in 2022.

“We are rebounding from COVID and are definitely in line with our peers. But we continue to lose ground when competing for employees. That’s what keeps me up at night and one of the biggest things that worries me.”

Herzog said Mountain Express’s big project this year is developing its five-year transit plan. He said Mountain Express will work with outside transit professionals to review the system, and along with project advisors, evaluate all services and make concrete recommendations for a plan in alignment with the transit goals outlined in Crested Butte’s Community Compass and transportation and mobility plan and Mt. Crested Butte’s Master Plan. He said the organization will leverage and expand upon public feedback in the process, including using ongoing customer surveys. 

“It’s concurrent with us adopting the Transportation and Mobility Plan,” said Crested Butte community development director Troy Russ. “We’re hoping Mountain Express evaluates potentially different routes to better serve the town and ways to reduce that last mile.” He also noted finding the missing links that put demands on the transit systems. We should consider how they’re tied together and be proactive with our partners and figure out what’s missing.”

The town of Crested Butte has identified in its Transportation and Mobility Plan the priority to collaborate with the Mountain Express and the Gunnison Valley Rural Transportation Authority (RTA) in their upcoming Transit Development Plans to support ways to improve transit service, continue growing frequency and innovate ways to reduce the first/last mile gap. 

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