ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The tiger-striped bus pulled up to the quiet neighborhood around 10:30 p.m., its internal sound system already piping a techno-beat clamor.
A dozen costumed adults — some already knee-deep in the night’s birthday-party revelry — ambled on-board for a ride to another shindig.
A safe ride.
For $7.50 each, the Party-Trolley delivered the group to its next destination without incident and without interrupting the festive flow. While en route, the tunes blasted, cameras flashed and a passenger wearing a Batman costume performed a superhero-worthy strut down the aisle.
Kyle McCallister — a 29-year-old dressed for the occasion as a human Breathalyzer — had arranged the trolley ride for the group, noting that his friends don’t drink and drive.
“It’s a great way — cheap and easy — to get wherever we want to go,” he said.
Paying the price
In this season of spiked eggnog and champagne toasts, here’s a sobering statistic: Under New Mexico law, a first-time DWI conviction can cost up to $1,900 in fines, fees and expenses like an ignition interlock device.
And that’s before paying a defense attorney, which DWI Resource Center Executive Director Linda Atkinson said can run around $3,000 to $5,000.
“It will take a chunk of change” to deal with a DWI, Atkinson said.
It is something a lot of people have learned the hard way: Authorities made 4,842 DWI arrests in Bernalillo County last year, according to the state’s Traffic Safety Division.
But a few local entrepreneurs are hoping to help turn that tide.
University of New Mexico student Paul Aitken founded Party-Trolley in 2011 using money he earned as the third-place finisher in the Entrepreneurial Challenge organized by UNM’s Anderson School of Management. Certified by the Public Regulation Commission as a “shared ride carrier,” Party-Trolley runs Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights with one-way fares as low as $5 per person.
Phil Baca’s service, Designated Drivers on Demand, offers a different variation on the safe ride. His customers get a sober driver to take them home in their own vehicle, thus avoiding the next-day scramble to get their car.
Baca’s members pay $30 a month for service any time of day, plus mandatory tips per ride.
In comparison, a five-mile taxi ride in Albuquerque for two people averages about $14.50, according to data from the Public Regulation Commission. Rental of a basic, sedan-style limo in Albuquerque averages $50 per hour.
Aitken, 24, said his mission was to prevent DWI by offering a transportation option that was both fun and cheap.
He started by purchasing a used bus from a church in Roswell.
“The guy said, ‘Now, son, I know you believe Jesus Christ is your savior and I hope you’re doing something good with this bus,'” Aitken recalled. “I said, ‘Yes, sir, I’m going to be saving hundreds of lives.'”
Aitken had the bus wrapped in black with a jungle-print motif and completely redid the inside. In lieu of bench seats, 12 comfy office-like chairs face center. Aitken covered the interior with black chalkboard paint that riders have since blanketed with doodles, signatures and declarations of love.
Perhaps the most important upgrade was the installation of flat-screen TVs on the bus’ exterior that flicker with a series of digital advertisements. Ad sales represent about 60 percent of the business’ revenue, letting Aitken keep fares low.
“The most you’ll pay is $10 per ride,” said Aitken, who now averages about 75 riders on a typical Saturday night.
The overwhelming majority use it round trip, and the trolley runs throughout Bernalillo County.
One recent rider recognized Party-Trolley as a deal right away, saying it beats the $6,000 she once spent to deal with a DWI arrest.
Another summed it up like this: “It’s cheaper to go safer.”
Tipping aside, the only extra fees are a 50-cent charge to use a credit card and $25 for vomit clean-up. The latter gets assessed roughly once every six months, Aitken said.
Currently, the age range for typical Party-Trolley riders is 30 to 40, but Aitken is pushing to get more college students. He notes that he’s had five friends convicted of DWI in the last 1 1/2 years.
“Our plan is to say ‘Hey, students: we know you’re drinking. Let’s be smart about this and have an alternative (to driving),'” he said, adding that he now offers a $40 monthly membership for students.
Aitken works about 65 hours per week — sometimes even driving the trolley himself — on top of his UNM course work. But the payoff has been a venture so successful that he’s added a second bus and has designs on moving into college communities around the U.S.
“I will not give up until this is the McDonald’s of transportation,” he said.
Baca, a retired Albuquerque police sergeant, said his experience in the field prompted him to start Designated Drivers on Demand in 2010.
When making DWI arrests, Baca said officers ask drivers why they didn’t use a taxi or another safe-ride option.
Bernalillo County, for example, offers its “Tavern Taxi” program year-round, offering free cab rides home to anyone who’s been drinking on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights when the bartender calls, plus round-trip service on some holidays. It’s been averaging about 663 passengers per month this year.
But Baca said DWI suspects tended to offer the same excuse for driving while intoxicated: They didn’t want to leave their car behind.
“I actually had one guy say, ‘Show me a taxi that can take my car home, and I’ll use that taxi,'” Baca said.
Baca said DDD has “several hundred” members. When they call, they are sent a team of two people: one who will drive them home in their vehicle and another who follows in a separate car.
Like Aitken, Baca has been somewhat surprised by his customer base. The overwhelming majority are professionals or business owners who range in age from 30 to 70. Most utilize the service just once per month and tend to err on the side of caution.
“They’re just being responsible,” Baca said. “Most of them, after they’ve had two drinks, they just won’t drive. They call us.”
There’s even a DWI attorney in the mix who Baca said once commented about the price for an annual membership (about $240) being cheaper than an hour of his time.
“I tell my drivers when I do hire them that they have to be able to accept a hug, because our members will hug you,” Baca said. “They’re so grateful.”