Their stories are the same.
Halfway through a four-hour crawl to the slopes, they glanced around at the bumper-to-bumper traffic on Interstate 70.
“I felt so dumb being on I-70, driving myself in my car and looking over at other drivers who are alone or with empty seats,” Erwin Germain said.
“All of the cars had one person. We thought, ‘This is nuts,’” said Lizzie Templeton, who in the next couple of weeks will launch a new carpooling app to help put more skiers in fewer cars.
This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
Germain also is launching a new app and so is another company. The three new carpooling apps are the latest attempt to ease the winter weekend traffic clogging the mountain corridor that connects the Front Range to the ski hills.
“It just seems the most practical, feasible thing to do, right?” said Templeton, whose decision to create her Caravan carpooling app last year was solidified when she saw five people, all in their own cars, driving from her Denver apartment complex to go skiing on a Saturday morning.
Ski traffic on I-70 has been a problem for many years, worsening as the Front Range population grows and resorts along the interstate sell record numbers of season passes. A decade ago, the Colorado Department of Transportation counted 4.3 million cars passing through Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnels from December through April. Last year, the agency tallied 5.1 million cars passing through the tunnels, which is down from the 2017-18 winter record of 5.7 million.
Carpooling is the easiest, quickest way to cut that congestion — at least easier than adding lanes or building a train.
But creating an app for carpoolers has been a mogul field for Germain and Templeton. The two entrepreneurs tried to launch their apps in 2019 but ran up against state laws and ride-sharing Goliaths Uber and Lyft.
“I didn’t think we were competition for Uber or Lyft but I guess they did,” said Germain, who launched Treadshare in December 2019 and a month later received a letter from the Department of Regulatory Agencies warning he was violating state laws requiring Public Utilities Commission permits for transportation network companies.
The letter “took us all by surprise,” said Margaret Bowes, whose I-70 Coalition unites more than 28 towns, cities and counties along the corridor in efforts to reduce gridlock on the highway.
So Bowes went to lawmakers. And they were “extremely responsive,” she said.
Within months there was a bill. By April, Colorado had a new law that allowed carpooling internet apps without the permitting and regulation required for heavyweights like Uber and Lyft. The law has some guardrails to keep carpooling out of the billion-dollar, app-driven ride-sharing industry. Carpool drivers are limited to six passengers, who pay only enough to cover costs. They are limited to one round trip per day. And each trip must cover at least 23 miles.
Where did that number come from? Uber and Lyft did not want carpooling apps to be competing with their apps, Bowes said, but the ride-sharing giants saw the legislative push for skier carpooling and negotiated a compromise. They settled on 23 miles because that is roughly the distance from the Morrison park-and-ride lots to the nearest ski area, Echo Mountain.
The I-70 Coalition says removing about 400 cars an hour on the interstate during peak travel hours will reduce stop-and-go congestion. That isn’t necessarily going to happen with carpooling apps, but it’s one tool in the effort to move things along on I-70.
There are new public transportation options provided by the Colorado Department of Transportation, like the Bustang service from Denver to Glenwood Springs, Gunnison and Steamboat Springs as well as new Bustang Outrider service connecting Grand Junction to Telluride and Durango. There are campaigns steering skiers toward off-peak travel times, like Thursdays and Mondays. The Colorado Department of Transportation earlier this month unveiled its revamped COTrip.org website and a new mobile app so travelers can better plan their trips.
The campaign to cut ski traffic was making headway in 2019. Resorts were offering parking incentives to carloads of skiers. Community campaigns were swaying people to travel in off-peak times, offering lodging discounts on Thursdays and Sundays.
“We had made some real progress, but we took some really big steps backwards during COVID,” said Al Henceroth, the boss at Arapahoe Basin, where cars with four people get free parking closest to the lifts.
It wasn’t just drivers reluctant to pack their cars during the pandemic. Automation at resorts — which accelerated during the pandemic, replacing the need for staffers like parking attendants — made it difficult to reward drivers and passengers who carpooled. Now, momentum toward carpooling has stalled.
“We are going to have to start again from scratch, I’m afraid,” Henceroth said.
Breckenridge, one of the most trafficked ski areas in the U.S., is offering a $5 parking discount this season for cars carrying four or more people.
Vail Resorts has four ski areas along the I-70 corridor, including Breckenridge, that log around 5 million skier visits a year and the operator is a member of the I-70 Coalition. The company supports initiatives to reduce congestion on the interstate, a company spokeswoman said.
A spokeswoman for Copper Mountain said the resort did not have any news yet on carpooling incentives for the coming ski season. Powdr, which owns Copper Mountain, heavily promotes RTD’s bus service from Boulder to its Eldora ski area near Nederland, where limited parking has forced the ski area to turn away visitors on busy weekends.
Germain created his Treadshare app to mirror France’s BlaBlaCar, the world’s busiest carpooling travel app, which reported 50 million passengers in 2020. He grew up in France using the app.
He adapted the app to Colorado, with a focus on skiers. Drivers must follow Colorado’s traction laws requiring all-weather tires or all-wheel drive. Drivers are asked to carry emergency winter equipment in case they get stuck. Eventually, Germain said, he sees his app working for carpoolers hoping to catch rides all over the state. (His business model involves taking a commission fee on each transaction to cover operating costs but the app is free for both passengers and drivers.)
Templeton’s Caravan app lets passengers and drivers see each other’s social media accounts. All the apps require drivers to charge only for expenses. Drivers are allowed to adjust their own rules for passenger vaccinations or masks.
The trio of new apps mark the first broad-scale focus on carpooling for the I-70 corridor. The incremental steps toward reducing traffic are aimed at an greater goal of getting more mountain travelers to move toward sustainable transportation. When mountain communities complain about the growing impacts of travelers, much of the concern is focused on cars.
“Even as we improve I-70 there are only so many cars that mountain resort communities can handle,” Bowes said.”They are limited by how much land they want to turn over to road widening and parking. So we really need to work on the short-term and long-term to get folks out of their vehicles and have a sustainable transportation system with fewer cars.”