When Erwin Germain was ready to leave the busy streets of Paris six years ago, he decided to move to Colorado because he had loved exploring the French Alps in his youth. “I had the opportunity to try new mountains in the United States, so I chose Colorado,” Germain says.
But as he began exploring the Rockies, en route to ski resorts and hiking destinations from his new home base in Denver (now a state employee, he has since moved to Summit County, near Copper Mountain), he noticed a clear gap. In Europe, he had often used a popular service called BlaBlaCar, which helps people gather to various destinations. As both passenger and driver, Germain enjoyed the event, shared the travel costs and knew he played a role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions by sharing trips.
Given Colorado’s green orientation, he decided to develop an app that would offer the same options in this state and help drivers and passengers pair up. He and co-founder Justin Kurtz have been working on the app, called TreadShare, for three years; it is finally ready to become operational.
Why did it take so long? The founders hit an unexpected roadblock when they first tried to launch in 2019: the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies informed them that TreadShare would have to pay the fees associated with commercial companies like Uber and Lyft, where drivers make money by giving people rides. According to Germain, it would have cost over $ 110,000 to bring the company into line – and that was just too much for a startup without a commercial model.
TreadShare drivers do not make money; they will simply offer extra seats in their cars and share the gas price with strangers rather than friends. While TreadShare itself will take a commission, Germain says the founders are trying to make this percentage as small as possible, just enough to cover operating expenses.
In search of help with Colorado’s compliance requirements, Germain led the I-70 coalition, which informed State Representative Julie McCluskie of the plight of TreadShare and two other Colorado carpooling apps, Gondola and Caravan.
After learning from the rules, Caravan founder Lizzie Templeton had already turned her project into a non-profit organization and created an app that does not involve money transactions. Instead, Caravan acts as a social site where users post their desired destinations and links to their social media so they can connect with others going to the same place; they are free to make financial arrangements offline. While the app has been functional since 2020, Caravan waited until 2021 to promote the service heavily due to both the pandemic and the regulatory error.
Gondola came up with a similar setup, but even though its website says the company plans to open soon, the site does not appear to have been updated for almost a year when it posted this: “We’m sorry we did not launch this season due to legal blockages from CO PUC. A new bill allowing Gondola to operate is moving through the Colorado House & Senate and we plan to launch for the 20/2021 season. ”
Templeton was originally inspired to configure its carpooling app during long drive to ski resorts on Interstate 70. McCluskie, who lives in Summit County and often travels along the I-70 corridor, was excited to consider a possible solution to alleviate congestion there.
One Friday night as she was on her way home from Denver, she remembers a snowstorm slowing traffic to a halt. Another representative, Perry Will, also tried to drive home. McCluskie and Will ended up talking all night while the traffic slowly cleared before they were able to reach home, and the two showed up with a renewed sense that it was urgent to do something about the congestion along the corridor.
“Given that it’s such a critical transportation access for the entire state, I’m very familiar with all the congestion we have to deal with because of the traffic and our amazing ski resorts and outdoor recreation opportunities,” McCluskie says.
When she heard about the challenges facing carpooling services, McCluskie took the opportunity to work on a bipartisan solution and proposed new rules for carpooling companies that would separate them from commercial activities like Uber and Lyft. McCluskie and Will became co-prime sponsors of a bill that was originally introduced in early 2020 but stalled until this year due to the pandemic. According to the proposal, which was finally signed into law in April, drivers are limited to one carpool ride a day as an addition to already planned adventures.
McCluskie says state lawmakers worked closely with Uber and Lyft to ensure the goal of merging companies was really different. The end result: Carpooling equipment must be registered with CDOT, but communicate with users that CDOT does not regulate their services – meaning the state does not screen vehicles or check driver history as it does with Uber and Lyft. In addition, the total amount collected by carpooling drivers from passengers on each trip may not exceed the IRS reimbursement rate because the money represents travel expenses, not profits.
“The ultimate goal is really to reduce traffic and pollution here in Colorado, so we want to connect drivers and passengers on the road in the same direction,” Germain says. “That’s the difference with Uber and Lyft. We use a car that is already on the road.”
Now that the legislation has been passed, Templeton says Caravan plans to offer suggested prices to drivers; previously, it had bypassed it to avoid falling under the umbrella of commercial companies.
“The two major drivers of our adoption of this legislation, and the two major benefits, are reducing traffic congestion on the I-70 corridor and the environmental impact of reducing greenhouse gases when we get more vehicles off the road,” McCluskie explains .
Although it is difficult to determine the exact environmental impact of the legislation before knowing how many people will use carpooling apps, Germain points out that if even a few thousand trips every weekend during the ski season continue, emissions will be reduced. Caravan already had over 100 users before the ski season started, and Templeton says that the user base has grown in recent weeks.
And there are benefits beyond helping the environment. As the BlaBlaCar service gained momentum in Europe, Germain notes, users also appreciated saving money and meeting like-minded people. On its Instagram, TreadShare emphasizes all of these benefits to help persuade people to take carpooling.
And TreadShare users will also have a chance to win a 2022-23 season ticket to the Arapahoe Basin. According to Sha Miklas, senior manager of sustainability and guest service, sustainability is the key to the ski area; when A-Basin saw a chance to encourage people to get to the mountain in a more sustainable way, it signed up for the app.
“We have the power to save the powder” is one of A-Basin’s sustainability slogans. In addition to offering the chance to win a season ticket, the company plans to highlight TreadShare and other carpooling services as part of its sustainable social media Sunday series. Anyone who is frustrated by crowded parking conditions at the ski area can also help by carpooling, Miklas notes.
While TreadShare lists destinations across Colorado, it’s mainly focused on ski areas and travel along I-70. Caravan only lists ski resorts as destinations, but Templeton says the company is exploring adding hiking and other popular destinations, such as Red Rocks, during the summer months.
“I keep wondering about the innovations that come out of the market and that solve all sorts of problems,” says McCluskie. Five years from now, she adds, people can look back on Colorado’s adoption of carpooling apps like TreadShare and Caravan as game-changers in terms of congestion and greenhouse gas emissions.
TreadShare is scheduled to hit the game on Monday, November 29th. Find out more here.