Sleek, futuristic, monorail-like trams on rubber tires chugging around a dedicated path — no, it's not an image from Walt Disney World. Instead, it is City Roamers — the first wave of a rising tide of developer-provided, customer-centric shopping center transport, parking and valet systems.

Making shopping as easy and pleasurable as possible for customers undoubtedly has been jump-started by fall's disappointing shopping pace caused by the slowing economy and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Dubbed the ZIP Shopping Shuttle, seven sets of LPG-fueled trams began operating in August along a 2.6-mile pathway connecting three neighboring shopping centers in suburban Broomfield, Colo.'s FlatIron retail district: Westcor Partners' FlatIron Crossing, Koll Development Co.'s FlatIron Marketplace and Coalton Acres LLC's Main Street at FlatIron.

In 1995, the property owners and local authorities looked at their options for a public transportation system to serve the area, which includes 700,000 residents in a 10-mile radius. “We said, ‘Let's look for an inexpensive way to move both our employees and shoppers,’” says David Scholl, Westcor senior vice president. “We wanted something free, so riders wouldn't have to handle change. It should also provide protection from the elements and should be something of a novelty.”

They got their wish. Shoppers and employees of all three centers ride free, each of the 14 stops on the ZIP route has a shelter, and the tram is indeed a novelty. Two bright yellow fiberglass tram cars per set carry up to 18 passengers behind a power car featuring four-wheel drive and a hydraulic braking system. Initially used in London, the trams were designed in Warwickshire, U.K., by Severn-Lamb and manufactured in Borgo Pieve, Italy, by Dotto Trains, says Nancy Munoz, CEO of Specialty Vehicles Inc., Huntington Beach, Calif. Munoz served as liaison with the international firms.

As a security feature, the power car can be equipped with a TV monitor that makes all the cars visible at one time. Seats are cloth-upholstered. Interior advertising racks provide information to shoppers while promoting retailers.

Broomfield officials and the developers also worked with transportation consultant Charlier Associates of Boulder, Colo., to plan the FlatIron transit ring. The three developers collaborated on and paid for infrastructure improvements — including bridges, tunnels, water, sewer, and power — to the retail district totaling some $60 million to $80 million, Scholl says. Some of those expenditures will eventually be refunded by the City of Broomfield, drawn from a sales tax of 1/5 of 1%, in order to finance the loop's operations.

As a new twist on popular valet parking programs, Glimcher Realty Trust is employing a remote retrieval valet program at its new seven-anchor, 150-shop Polaris Fashion Place in Columbus, Ohio, which opened in late October. Arriving shoppers can park at the shopping center's main entrance, then have their vehicle delivered to any mall entrance when they're ready to depart. At drop-off, a shopper receives an electronic card that can be swiped at one of the electronic readers mounted by each mall entrance/exit. The card reader displays a message letting the shopper know when the valet will arrive with the vehicle.

Developers are banking on such touches of luxury and convenience, especially to boost holiday visits and sales.

Paula Stephens is an Atlanta-based writer.