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Snowbird ski area has a low skier-per-acre count, but traffic on Little Cottonwood Canyon is so heavy that the ski hill near Salt Lake City is having trouble luring new customers. The resort's marking boss has come up with a fix though, an app that matches riders with drivers to try and cut down on the number of car trips made up the narrow, winding road each day. (Photo provided by Snowbird)

Utah’s Snowbird ski area typically boasts the best snow in the country. Yet, even with its new partnership with the wildly popular Ikon Pass, it’s one of the loneliest resorts, with a very low skier-per-acre tally.

That’s because it has a long, snowy and often-crowded driveway winding up Little Cottonwood Canyon.

“The comfortable carrying capacity of our resort far exceeds the number of people we can put up the road,” said Dave Amirault, Snowbird’s director of marketing. “Our visitation has been largely flat for years because we can’t get any more people up here.”

That is not a problem unique to Snowbird. In a growing West, where discount passes are driving traffic and resort community populations are swelling, it’s the cars, not the skiers, that are causing the most headaches. And Amirault has forged one easy plan that is easing Snowbird’s access challenge and drawing the eye of resorts across the country that are struggling with skiers riding alone in their cars.

Snowbird marketing director Dave Amirault assembled a team including product designer Mike Dawson, of Steamboat Springs, to solve the Utah resort’s traffic problem. The came up with the RIDE app, which matches drivers and passengers to reduce the number of single-occupancy vehicles climbing up Little Cottonwood Canyon from Salt Lake City each day. (Ed Kosmicki, Special to The Colorado Sun)

His new app RIDE — shorthand for Reduce Individual Driving for the Environment — offers simple but compelling rewards to drivers and riders who carpool. In its first month, RIDE was used more than 1,500 times. Other resorts, Amirault said, are signing up to use the program.

“The problem everywhere is that there are too many single-occupancy cars. So, we thought let’s craft the right incentives,” Amirault said. “So, we thought how do we incentivize people to change their behavior without messing with their money or punishing them?”

Little Cottonwood sees about 2.1 million visitors a year driving up Utah 210. A vast majority of those are winter visitors, navigating a road that winds across 64 avalanche paths. Mitigation of those slide paths often requires extensive closures, backing up traffic the length of the canyon and stranding resort visitors under an order not to even leave resort buildings, a situation — unique to Little Cottonwood Canyon — known as “interlodge.”

The traffic up Little Cottonwood Canyon has gotten so thick that the Federal Highway Administration is preparing an environmental impact statement about the road, analyzing potential improvements that include better public transportation, tolling, additional parking and roadway upgrades. The plan could require the Forest Service to transfer lands in the canyon to the Utah Department of Transportation.

On the demand side, RIDE is helping to ease traffic pain.

A skier makes his way through deep snow at Alta Ski Area in Little Cottonwood Canyon. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

App was demoed in 2016-17

Snowbird debuted an early version of the RIDE program in 2016-17 as part of the resort’s ticket system, offering rewards for carpooling. That year, the program helped cut 224,000 miles of travel in single-occupancy cars. But it wasn’t easy to use: Manual tracking required carpoolers to get paper tickets validated by parking attendants. People would lose the ticket. The process was cumbersome.   

“It was a good idea, but it was janky,” Amirault said.

Snowbird turned to Amirault, whose 20-year ski industry career spans several resorts and the development of some of ski media’s most innovative offerings at Freeskier magazine. His social media work and digital marketing — he’s the guy behind Snowbird’s award-winning, reverse-psychology ad campaign that champions one-star reviews posted by irked and overwhelmed Snowbird skiers — has earned him the nickname Digi Dave.

Amirault found a Snowbird mountain host who worked as a software developer. He signed up an interactive developer from Steamboat Springs. The trio last year spent six months revamping the RIDE program into an app for mobile phones. The mobile capability is a key characteristic that makes RIDE different than other ride-sharing programs that encourage carpooling, including Colorado’s website-based SkiCarpool and the Bay Area’s 20-year-old SnowPals. Another difference is the connection to the resort, which offers incentives beyond simple convenience.

At Snowbird ski area in Utah, the RIDE app gives carpoolers perks for participating, including offering priority parking in the resort’s crowded lots. (Ed Kosmicki, Special to The Colorado Sun)

RIDE offers rewards for drivers who give rides and for riders who leave their car at home. The perks range from packs of Snowbird stickers, water bottles and other SWAG, to half-priced, transferable lift tickets. Carpoolers also get access to VIP parking lots. Riders and drivers with more than 10 rides are entered into a lottery offering early access to the resort before the public. Top app users will earn lift tickets and rooms at Snowbird’s Cliff Lodge.

“If I ever think we need to sweeten the deals a little more, I can log on right now and add a reward for anything I want,” said Amirault, who offered a GoPro for the app’s 1,000th ride.

Credit for taking the bus

Snowbird pass holders who use Utah Transit Authority buses to reach the resort also earn points. And the more than 1,900 Snowbird workers who use an employee version of the app can get money deposited into their paycheck.

In its first two weeks, the app yielded more than 800 rides, an exponential increase over early guesstimates. That growth rate has continued over the past two weeks, with carpooling skiers gathering at a growing roster of pickup points around Salt Lake City.

“I just got a call from Westminster College, and now their students can open the app and get a ride from a designated pickup point on campus. All I had to do was drop in Google Maps and the school printed out a signage kit and stuck a sign in the ground,” Amirault said. “It only took a few minutes.”

The app is based in the cloud, which allows it to be adopted — and adapted — by other resorts. Amirault’s team can add new pickup locations with a few keystrokes. The web-based framework keeps operating costs low. Amirault said it costs about $100 a month to host the program on the cloud.  

“We can scale this thing to any resort,” Amirault said. “From Day One, we knew this was a problem all resorts have, so we worked to not solve this just for us, but let’s engineer this thing for use by everyone who wants it.”

Snowbird is one of the loneliest ski areas in Utah because of the clogged, winding road that runs from Salt Lake City to the resort. The ski hill’s marketing boss has developed a new carpooling app to help get some of that traffic off the road. (Ed Kosmicki, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Product designer Mike Dawson, of Steamboat Springs, helped build the app using a modular design, which allows other users to easily switch out colors and logos without hindering the function. The app also tallies the amount of carbon dioxide reduced as carpool miles accumulate.

“Being someone who lives and breathes the mountain lifestyle, I try to continuously find ways to blend my passion for design with other areas of importance to me such as the environment and global warming,” Dawson said. “This opportunity seemed like a perfect intersection of the two, and I am beyond thrilled to see the app thriving in the space we envisioned.”

Amirault says resorts are calling weekly, eager to learn more about the app. Traffic along Interstate 70’s resort-lined mountain corridor has been especially dense this season, with avalanche closures and big storms drawing skiers to major resorts such as Winter Park, Breckenridge and Vail.

Interstate 70 ski traffic in Clear Creek County in February 2019. (Nathan Hahn. Special to The Colorado Sun)

Vail Resorts chief Rob Katz this month told The Colorado Sun that skiers, resorts and communities “collectively need to do a much better job on carpooling and getting people out of their cars,” noting mass-transit proposals that could help ease the wintertime, weekend congestion on the I-70 corridor in Colorado.

Colorado’s Powdr, which owns Copper Mountain and Eldora Mountain Resort and whose founder, John Cumming, is chairman of Snowbird, hopes to roll out RIDE at some of its nine mountain resorts soon.

“Whether an app or a promotion or an incentive, Powdr is in support of tools that enable our commitment to … protecting the environment and inspiring participation,” Powdr spokeswoman Jenn Rudolph said. “RIDE is certainly one of those tools.”

Jason Blevins lives in Eagle with his wife, daughters and a dog named Gravy. Topic expertise: Western Slope, public lands, outdoors, ski industry, mountain business, housing, interesting things Location: Eagle, CO Newsletter: The...