“Technology only gets you so far, because transportation comes down to human behaviour and people having choices.”
– Linda DuPriest, Regional Transportation Director at the Elected Officials Transportation Committee
While transportation and travel go hand in hand, so do the issues of congestion and overcrowding in highly visited spaces. Too much pressure can degrade visitor experiences and the natural wonders they rely on. Does this situation sound familiar to you? It’s time to learn from Aspen.
In this episode of the Travel Beyond Podcast, we sit down with Linda DuPriest, Regional Transportation Director at the Elected Officials Transportation Committee, and Ken Murphy, CEO at H2O Ventures to discuss the importance of proper transportation management in Aspen, Colorado, a place with highly sought-after outdoor experiences. The episode breaks down the challenges related to congestion both on the roads and popular recreational trails. The Aspen community has been addressing these issues for decades in a way that helps both locals and visitors.
Tune in as we dive deeper into different recreation management strategies, the importance of communication for preserving the environment, and how to potentially improve the overall experience for both visitors and locals.
In this episode, you’ll learn:
- How localized air quality issues led to action on public transit in the 1990s.
- How Aspen is addressing today’s transportation and congestion issues.
- About managing visitor flow at popular natural attractions and how locals are coping.
- The impact of Aspen’s public-private partnerships to improve visitor experiences through programs like shuttle services.
- Hanging Lake – a National Natural Landmark and hiking trail near Aspen.
- Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act – a United States federal law that posed a major change to transportation planning and policy.
- Maroon Bells – an outdoor attraction near Aspen.
- Meet the Biggest Bike Dork in Congress
- Pickton County Elected Officials Transportation Committee – established in 1993 as an advisory committee for fixed route public transit within the Roaring Fork Valley that is comprised of the elected officials from the City of Aspen, Town of Snowmass Village, and Pitkin County.
- Roaring Fork Transportation Authority – an agency that operates public transportation for the Roaring Fork Valley in Colorado.
Linda DuPriest: Technology only gets you so far because transportation comes down to human behaviour.
Ken Murphy: The resource can only handle so many people until that resource is not the resource that we see in our pictures, we see in the video, you know, people have memories of.
David Archer: Hello, and welcome to Travel Beyond, where we partner with leading destinations to explore the greatest challenges facing communities and the planet, surfacing their most inspiring solutions. I’m David Archer, Editorial Manager at Destination Think, and I’m recording from the coastal village of Daajing Giids, British Columbia, which is in Haida Gwaii, the territory of the Haida Nation.
Rodney Payne: And I’m Rodney Payne. I’m the CEO at Destination Think. I’m recording today from Revelstoke, British Columbia, where I live. It’s a city on the territory of four First Nations, the Sinixt, the Secwépemc, the Sylix, and the Ktunaxa. On this show, we look at the role of travel and choose to explore destinations that are global leaders.
We talk to the changemakers in those places who are addressing regenerative travel through action in their communities that often comes from the ground up.
David Archer: And we’re actively looking for the best examples of those ground-up efforts to regenerate economies, communities, and ecosystems, so please get in touch with us if you have a story to share.
Our previous two guests told us a little about the subject that is at the heart of travel, which is transportation. And now we’re going to focus this episode on transportation challenges and solutions faced in Aspen and how the community has responded to those challenges. We’re going to hear from Linda DuPriest, the Regional Transportation Director at the Elected Officials Transportation Committee.
And she gives us a really fascinating look at the challenge over the past few decades and some of the solutions that have been put in place since then. And then Ken Murphy, the CEO at H2O Ventures, will tell us about his company’s partnership with public services to manage transportation surrounding some of the Aspen area’s most popular outdoor attractions.
And often, in tourism, people are leading tourism destinations or doing destination marketing or management, we think in terms of the visitor experience, what are people going to visit a place for? But the public services see themselves in terms of the local experience, of course, as they should. And so, as we’ll hear from Linda, Aspen seems to have solved a local problem that all the visitors now benefit from as well. Rodney, what did you see or hear in Aspen that other places can learn from?
Rodney Payne: Well, I think places that seek to attract visitors through tourism promotion and destination management inherently are adding load to their place, right? So you’ve got residents who need to move around for their daily lives, and then you’re adding stress or, you know, the need for capacity on top of that system, however people move around.
And that can create problems over time that you really need to proactively plan for and manage and that, you know, that might expose itself in terms of resident frustration with, increased congestion or local environmental impacts or even health impacts. And interestingly, in Aspen, the impetus for really proactively tackling the local transportation planning was public health.
There was a lot of pollution from the transportation and the work that they did decades ago now not only reduced that but left a legacy for the visitor and resident experience.
David Archer: Yeah. It’s fascinating to hear about that. In most of our episodes this season, it seems like people are really grateful for some of their leaders from decades past in Aspen who not only had a vision for how Aspen could function, but they actually did something about it. And so as we’ll hear from Linda, this is the same situation in transit from back in the nineties.
What do you think current leaders can take away from this?
Rodney Payne: I think that the need for proactive planning, even if you haven’t felt the pain, is imperative, right? If you can project that a transportation system may be creating adverse effects, now is the right time to be getting ahead of that problem.
David Archer: And now we’ll go to your conversation with Linda DuPriest, Regional Transportation Director at the Elected Officials Transportation Committee.
Linda DuPriest: My name is Linda DuPriest, and I’m the Regional Transportation Director for the Picken County Elected Officials Transportation Committee, which is an intergovernmental group of Picken County, the City of Aspen, and the Town of Snowmass Village.
Rodney Payne: What’s the best biking trail in Aspen?
Linda DuPriest: Well, I’m a big road rider, so I like to park in Woody Creek. And come up the Rio Grande Trail, come through town, and then go up to the Maroon Bells or to Ashcroft, which is on the road. But it’s fantastic riding and scenery. So trails-wise, you really can’t go wrong.
The whole paved trail system here in Aspen’s outstanding. And the city has connected it to some on-street facilities.
Rodney Payne: What’s the best place you’ve ever ridden a bike in the world?
Linda DuPriest: That, that question has two parts. Bicycling in general, the best place, of course, from a transportation point of view, is the Netherlands. A couple years ago, three or four years ago, I spent about four months there, over an 18-month period. And that, bicycling-wise – transportation, recreation, connectivity – is our mothership for the whole world. Road riding, I would say the Beartooth Highway, Montana. Up in the northeast edge of uh, Yellowstone National Park where it pops over into Montana from Yellowstone. It’s a 15-mile climb up a glacier bowl. I’d have to say that’s it. Mountain biking, the best mountain biking anywhere is Crested Butte, Colorado.
Rodney Payne: Biking in Amsterdam is life-changing. It, there’s no other way to describe it, right? The infrastructure and the pairing with public transport infrastructure is just, it’s like seeing the future, and it is exhilarating. And it’s hard to say that about just commuting, right?
And, it really is a good reminder of how, how infrastructure is so important.
Linda DuPriest: Yes.
Rodney Payne: So speaking of infrastructure, you’ve been in Aspen for three years and you’ve –
Linda DuPriest: Well, I’ve been in the Valley for three years. I lived in Glenwood and I don’t unfortunately get to live here, but I get to work here.
Rodney Payne: Yeah. So how’s the traffic?
Linda DuPriest: I think the traffic and the way people behave in cars in Aspen is actually very civilized and manageable. Long-time Aspenites feel pressure from all the people that are commuting into town and then in the winter and summer visiting seasons a lot of people are driving through in cars.
But the City of Aspen has done such a great job with their roads, their bike and pedestrian facilities, pedestrian crossing lights, and the way they manage their parking. They have a pretty extensive paid parking system, which sort of knocks down a lot of the driving there. I think for a small town in America, it’s outstanding.
But traffic is a very loaded word, and it’s a very subjective concept. When we are in our cars wanting to go somewhere, we call traffic, everybody else except us. And we don’t want anyone in our way, and we don’t want anyone around us. When we’re sitting on our front porch and we see cars going by our house, we don’t want those cars going by our house.
But, traffic itself is unavoidable. The challenge is managing it with other mode choices. And this valley’s done an outstanding job of that. The position I have, the EOTC was created in the 90s. Some leaders here in the community at the time, Rachel Richards, who just went off of the council, a man named John Bennett, and some other folks that I haven’t met yet really pushed the idea of creating a transit system.
And just making transportation options possible in this upper valley. There was a couple things happening in the U.S. at the time that triggered that action. Some federal funding programs that were in place were newish. Some federal legislation called Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, which started to shift federal funding into other modes besides just building highways and expanding them.
And Aspen at the time had a poor air quality rating. Cause it sort of sits in this canyon and there was pollution, so they needed to put some things into place to get the emissions down. And then that just led, trickledown effect, to creating all of the wonderful, transit system we have here and some of the other programs in the upper valley.
Rodney Payne: So localized air quality issues catalyzed action that also benefited the local and visitor experience and the climate impact.
Linda DuPriest: Quality of life, visitor experience, air quality, all of it sort of coalesced at the same time.
Rodney Payne: So beyond congestion, what other issues do cars bring to a place?
Linda DuPriest: There’s a lot.
What’s happened in America and other places, Australia is another place, it’s similar to America and how their infrastructure is built out having to accommodate cars, their size, their speed, in neighbourhoods and parts of town where you want people to congregate. You want people to feel comfortable walking. You want public spaces that feel good. Cars are just too big and too cumbersome, and there isn’t enough room to have cars in a space where you also want that space to be designed for people and people’s experiences. Like this wonderful downtown core here. You do still want some car access. But particularly as time has gone by and cars are getting bigger and bigger, SUVs and big pickup trucks that people are choosing to drive for transportation, they’re just big. And having enough places to park them and the space they take up on the road, pushes out more human presence and human interactions. So that’s a big one.
Rodney Payne: You spend a lot of time thinking about mobility and there’s a lot of people in the world working on all kinds of different innovative approaches to how we move people and things around. And there’s people pushing on policy, right? And pushing for change to make more human-centred places and really easily accessed places. When you look 10 or 15 years out, knowing everything you know what do you think the world could look like?
Linda DuPriest: Towns like this and bigger cities that get it, understand that we just don’t have enough room to put more cars, it looks very bright. Aspen has done an outstanding job with – in fact, I don’t know if you know this data, but between the transit system, Aspen has an internal transit system, and then the whole valley is serviced by RAFTA, Roaring Fork Transportation Authority. That’s the big bus system in this valley, and also down the Colorado River Valley towards Rifle and western Garfield County. They have been able to hold the traffic volumes coming into Aspen, roughly at the same level they were at 1993. So, in 1993, when they formed the EOTC, and then they started investing in all of these transportation options they’ve been able to hold those volumes, which is remarkable.
It’s an astounding achievement. And that’s what our goal is. To not let it creep up any higher than that, while still making this an attractive place to visit and tourists, the ski industry and workers coming into town and, and all of those essential transportation needs. Aspen has a transportation program, and they work with employers to get people out of cars. They have a car share program. We have bike share. They’re very forward-thinking and aggressive in this town.
Rodney Payne: How do you change hearts and minds around showing people that there’s a way better way of doing things? And, and getting past those sorts of biases and cultural values.
Linda DuPriest: The first thing you have to do is invest in transportation options.
Infrastructure transit systems, bicycling and walking, but you also at the same time have to disincentivize driving. And as you know from having been in the Netherlands, they tax the heck outta cars. You can own a big SUV. You can buy a big pickup truck, but you’re gonna be taxed, and it’s really high just for the extra space that vehicle takes up in that little country and the extra gas that it’s gonna require.
So, you have to provide the infrastructure. That takes leadership, and it takes bold leadership. You have to make driving more uncomfortable. There’s always going to be a chunk of people that are not going to make that leap into an alternative. Some are lifestyle reasons, some are self-image reasons, and some of them are reasons such that they have complicated lives. They’ve got kids to drop off and pick up. They have to run a lot of errands during the day. All of these things.
But the infrastructure, the land use policies is a big part of it too. In the U.S., of course, we have land use policies, and parking requirements that have created sprawl. In some parts of the U.S., land is cheap. People decided they didn’t want to live in density. They want to have their suburban home. And the roads have to follow that. And then once you build the highway that follows the development, more development follows the highway. And it’s a self-perpetuating system. Then you end up with the congestion, and too many cars, and angry people, and you have to try to go back and then correct for some of those trends since, in this country, post-war that we started to do.
And you know from being in the Netherlands, they also started doing that too.
Rodney Payne: Yeah, if you contrast Rotterdam with Amsterdam.
Linda DuPriest: Rotterdam is where I spent a lot of time. And they are catching up, but Rotterdam was bombed in the war. And so they lost a lot of their beautiful, medieval city centers that the other towns in the Netherlands have.
And they just started to go the whole sprawl car way. But as you know, just in the history of bicycling in Holland, a bunch of activists in the 70s, mainly it was kids were being hit by cars. And they went, no. Not in our country. And they started to back that up and change some of those trends and work really aggressively on a balanced system.
Rodney Payne: When communities get to a point where people don’t need to own cars because it’s just easier and cheaper to get around without them, what are we going to do with all the parking spaces?
Linda DuPriest: Well, the places where people are going to make that change already don’t have a lot of parking spaces. And they tend to also have governments and activists that have already started, that have been sort of for decades working on the infrastructure to make it possible not to have to rely on a car or maybe a family can have one car.
It’s a lifestyle decision that a lot of people will never make. But younger folks are moving to those types of places and choosing that lifestyle. And if the public transit investment has been substantial, and there are places they want to go.
Portland, Oregon is an outstanding example of this. In the early 90s, they started combining aggressive, federal funding for transportation options with building out their bike network, with light rail and transit, and at the same time getting rid of parking minimums, doing livability design in certain neighborhoods.
And that’s probably the best example in the U. S. of a city that just really went after it at one point and just hasn’t stopped. There’s a gentleman in our field, a congressman from Oregon, Earl Blumenauer. He was just in a Slate article. And they called him the biggest bike dork in Congress.
I worked with him many years ago on federal transportation legislation when I worked in the bike industry. He was on the city council. He started pushing all of those issues. Then he got into Congress, and started pushing the federal funding at that level.
Rodney Payne: How do you want to see transportation in the Roaring Fork change?
Linda DuPriest: I wouldn’t say that it needs to change so much as we are trying to do more of the things that are already working well.
Like many cities and towns in America, we here have a challenge, our transit system, RAFTA, in being able to hire and keep drivers and bus mechanics and staff because of the exorbitant high cost of living in this area. In our valley, the housing is so expensive that people have to live further away from their jobs, which requires more transit service. RAFTA is really working hard on that, trying to create more housing, but it’s really difficult.
Rodney Payne: One of the elephants in the room around transportation is how energy intensive it is to move people around. And the world is grappling with rapidly accelerating climate change. How do you think about that and what’s the opportunity to clean our transport system?
Linda DuPriest: The challenge with that it’s the system that gives people the most ultimate freedom. And if you’re talking about mountain towns and resort towns, we move here to have the freedom to go whenever we want, wherever we want. We want to go to the ski hill. We want to go to the trailhead. We want to go to the lake. We want to do whatever we want to do. That is directly in conflict with creating the most efficient transportation system, which is public transportation, bicycling and walking. Driving your own personal automobile is just highly inefficient from a cost standpoint, from a safety standpoint, from making space in public infrastructure for it to the environmental cost.
So that’s the biggest problem right there. Because even very environmentally conscious people, and I consider myself one. Most of my life I have not driven a car to work. I’ve chosen to live close to my job, and I rode my bicycle or took transit. You move to a mountain town, and you want that freedom. You want your car. You want to be able to get around and go wherever you want to go. And I think that is a very difficult piece for a lot of people.
Rodney Payne: Is the answer that we need to slow down or part of the answer?
Linda DuPriest: Modern people that want to live their lives to the fullest, I don’t think they’re going to slow down. We all want to grab every bit of life that we can, particularly when you move to a place like this. I think our valley, our transit system and the communities that have made a commitment to this have shown that efficient transportation can fit in with a mountain lifestyle.
You know, RAFTA creating – or Aspen Ski Company, even before RAFTA was around-, creating these ski buses, and that grew into RAFTA which now operates ski shuttles in between the four mountains. When you get on a bus to come up valley to go to your job in winter, you’re going to have skiers in the aisles. Everyone’s on the bus together. That has certainly helped tremendously in this unique environment where you have Snowmass, then you have Buttermilk, which is right outside of Aspen. Then you have Highlands, which is almost in, but off that way. And then you have Aspen Mountain right in the middle of town.
And visitors coming and staying in Aspen, skiing in Snowmass, or vice versa. Or they can ski half a day in Snowmass and half a day at Buttermilk and they have that freedom to go around. That’s all been possible to the extent that it is because of the transit system and the way Aspen Ski Company has worked with RAFTA and worked with the communities. So that’s just exemplary and shows a lot of hope.
Rodney Payne: What do you think that Aspen can teach other communities around the world?
Linda DuPriest: The very… existence of the organization I work for, EOTC, in that they decided to work together. The EOTC is essentially a sub-regional transportation planning group that they created voluntarily and created a taxing engine for it.
That is unusual in the U.S., in rural areas. In the U.S., transportation planning is mandated by the federal government you have to do it at any level of government, but it’s a mandate if one of your communities at least has 50,000 people in it. We don’t have that here. And in rural areas, you often don’t see communities get together to do that.
And the fact that this upper valley, the leadership here that did it. All the way back in the early 90s is remarkable and it’s unique. So it takes recognizing that transportation is regional in nature. It’s not just happening in your town. And also acknowledging that Aspen in particular, and Snowmass as well, the highly desirable nature of this town and the kinds of people who can move here and create these amazing second homes and the international tourism that comes here.
Your workforce can’t live here. You know, most of them, us, have to commute in from someplace else. So that has allowed Aspen to have a workforce to service its tourist industry. But it’s also given opportunity to people like me, who live someplace else but can then have the opportunity to work in this market, which I feel very fortunate to do. So all of the workers that are coming down here are taking advantage of the economic opportunity that this place has.
Rodney Payne: When you think about all the different developments and innovations, technology and different types of transportation, what are you most excited for?
Linda DuPriest: The technology that allows bike sharing, for instance. A smartphone-based way to pay for your transit ride. The parking technology. Aspen’s core parking system collects so much revenue that it funds a big chunk of their transit, and you have the kiosks and the way that you can just pull up, get out, pay with your credit card, or you can pay ahead of time with your phone and then, the enforcement comes along, reads your license plate, knows how long you’ve been here, collects the revenues or the fines or whatever, generates money to go back into the system. That all has been fantastic.
There is carpool technology that’s kind of not really ready yet. It can detect how many people via smartphone are sitting in a car and could give that group of people in that car a preference for an HOV lane, say.
The tolling that we see in other places. One project that has been discussed here. It came out of a mobility task force that the Aspen Institute put on about five or six years ago, and the EOTC actually has it as one of our work items in the next couple of years, looking at doing congestion pricing like they did in London and Singapore, and they’re going to introduce in New York City and lower Manhattan.
That’s an interesting, very interesting, controversial but interesting technology there. I think those are the things right now. Really, technology only gets you so far because transportation comes down to human behavior and people having choices.
And if they don’t have choices, they won’t be able to make that choice, and they will go back to driving their car everywhere. technology’s exciting, but there’s a limit to it.
Rodney Payne: Yeah, it has the ability to remove some of the friction that you described and make us a lot more efficient in the way that we move around. And it really comes down to values, right? And what gives me a little hope is that the values of younger generations are shifting.
Linda DuPriest: Oh, yeah. we need the kids screaming, definitely.
Rodney Payne: Well, thank you for making time in your day to come and talk to me about mobility here in Aspen.
David Archer: And that was Linda DuPriest on the region’s transit network. And now for a look at improving the visitor experience through transportation, here is Rodney speaking with Ken Murphy, the CEO at H2O Ventures.
Rodney Payne: Could you tell me your name and what you do?
Ken Murphy: Ken Murphy, I am the owner of H2O Ventures and Adventure Outdoors.
Rodney Payne: Tell us a little bit about where we’re sitting today and why it’s significant.
Ken Murphy: We’re sitting at Aspen Highlands Ski Area, historically known as some of the best skiing in the country. And it’s also the entry to the Maroon Bells. Which is a kind of iconic Colorado destination, if not a U.S. destination, for the National Forest. And it’s been used now as the sort of centralized point to filter people up to the Maroon Bells.
Rodney Payne: Can you tell me a little bit about the transportation challenges that Aspen has experienced over the last decade?
Ken Murphy: Whether it be transportation in and out of Aspen, I think it’s just the volume of people. And we’re constrained by Mother Nature. I mean, we’re in a valley, surrounded by the most beautiful mountains. It’s not like we have multiple roads, highway access points to get here. So when you add a volume of people that want to come and see what we’re lucky enough to live in, then we’re going to have transportation issues, whether it be into our communities, whether it be parking, whether it be into the National Forest like the Maroon Bells.
Rodney Payne: What’s improving?
Ken Murphy: I call it managed recreation. The first goal of managed recreation is protecting the environment. Second, protecting the experience. So if we can somewhat limit the amount of people visiting these areas, we’re going to protect that resource. But again, by limiting it too, we’re going to protect that experience. You know, this isn’t Central Park. This is a wilderness, scenic area. And who wants to be in the mountains with thousands of people looking at the Maroon Bells? It’s got that heavenly feel to it. And I think with managed recreation, we’ve not only, as said, protected the resource because keeping the volume of people down. But when people get up there, they can take in the beauty of the area.
Rodney Payne: Yeah, a destination like this really trades on its natural environment. What are your thoughts about the urgency of solving the challenges around congestion and transportation?
Ken Murphy: Well, it started with COVID here. When COVID hit, we had the social distancing issues. And then how do we maintain the social distancing? Well, the best way to do that was through a reservation system and managing the amount of people that could be on a bus. And then from there, we saw the successes of that, whereby the amount of people that visited the areas we could control.
But not only could we control, but we could also communicate. So we had a more prepared visitor. When a visitor comes to the Bells now, they’ve received multiple communication, whether it be emails or call centre. So they’re more prepared, they’re arriving better prepared for the weather, the conditions, and so overall I think it’s been a success.
Rodney Payne: What’s been the toughest challenge to overcome?
Ken Murphy: Messaging. Getting the message out that you need a reservation. You know, a lot of international visitors arrive here, jump in their car, arrive at the Bells, were maybe unaware that we have a reservation system.
So having that balance and maintaining that possibility of a walk-up and managing the system that you do have the ability to get the walk-ons still on. They may not get on the time that they want, but the goal is to still get them out that particular day. And I think that’s been the biggest challenge, just because people come from all around the world to our destination, and how do you message that?
Rodney Payne: How did you decide to get involved in solving issues with transportation and congestion in the area?
Ken Murphy: Well, I’ve been involved in the outfitting side, so the river operations and outdoor recreation in general. And the river industry has sort of led the way in managed use, you know. For instance, everyone knows about the Grand Canyon and how awesome it is to raft through the Grand Canyon. And that has a certain amount of people that can go down the river at any one time or during a whole season.
Well, there’s other rivers all around the country that have that limited use. So my background in that sort of managed use of water recreation, we sort of took that to the hiking, to the access to the Maroon Bells and some other operations such as Hanging Lake, which is another iconic destination that we help manage.
The biggest success also would be the private-public partnerships. You know, we’re the private entity managing or helping manage public lands, and that can be a controversial point in itself. But I think between what we do best, what the Forest Service does best, the City of Aspen, Pitkin County. And we’ve all come together to achieve a common goal, which is to make it accessible, again, protect that resource, and it works really well. And the success of the private partnership is probably the biggest success of this area.
Rodney Payne: So let’s back up a little bit and talk about Maroon Bells. For people who may not be familiar with it, can you describe what Maroon Bells is and the challenge that you experienced?
Ken Murphy: Well Maroon Bells, it’s a vast property of the Forest Service just on the outskirts of Aspen. It’s got these incredible mountain peaks and this most beautiful lake at the bottom. I suppose you can divide it into two areas. We have our scenic area. Which is more for our day visitors. And then we have our wilderness area. And there’s so much camping and overnight camping. We’ve got Conundrum Hot Springs in there. And then we’ve got access to other communities. You know, it’s a very popular hike over to Crested Butte. Or Crested Butte over to Aspen too.
There’s also a lot of recreation. Different forms of recreation. We’ve got hikers, climbers. So it’s balancing all of that. And being able to appeal to all those different demographics when it comes to access and use. And transportation in and out of the Bells.
Rodney Payne: And can you briefly describe the management systems that are in place now?
Ken Murphy: Yeah. So Forest Service manages the resource. That is their resource. H2O Ventures, our company, we manage the back end, so we’re managing the call center, the reservation system. Our staff is on-site at the transportation depot at Aspen Highlands, and we’re there to load people onto the bus, answer questions, point them in the right direction, and then we’re also there to communicate.
For instance, the Forest Service reached out to us last year and said, “Our trash is being overloaded. Can we message, pack it in, pack it out?” So, we were able to, through text messaging, through emails, hey folks, reminder, please pack it in, pack it out. And then, you know, we were able to make huge gains.
Unfortunately, we impacted the transportation depot at Highlands. Because everyone was bringing their trash back here and putting it in the dumpsters here and overflowing from here. But at least we moved the problem from one place to another place. And then now, how do we solve that from here then?
We have to be able to adapt and change accordingly. Whether it be Mother Nature throwing us for curveballs, or whether it be the volume of people. I think right now, we’re trying to figure out, well, what’s the volume that the scenic area can accommodate, and how we efficiently move people up and down.
And then there are other balances. Whether it be the volume of bikes now and e-bikes. The development of e-bikes has made Maroon Bells a little bit more accessible. For people that may not have ridden a traditional bike just because of its altitude and the distance. E-bikes now have made it a lot easier, which has its own challenges, because now you’ve got the balance between e-bikes and buses on a small scenic road. We figured out we have to educate the e-bikers and talk to them about being safe on the road and single file and being aware that there are large shuttle buses heading up there.
Rodney Payne: And part of the solution, has it been about limiting private transportation?
Ken Murphy: There is private transportation that already exists that has permits because you need a permit to operate on the Forest Service. It’s balancing that and figuring out what each entity needs. I mean the private entities have certain demographics that they appeal to, and then the mass groups, yeah, that works well with our public transportation.
And that’s the other thing in these private-public partnerships. Not only have we got government and county government and U.S. Forest Service and Agency. And the transportation is run by our public transportation system. So that’s RAFTA.
So again, it’s all these units working together and working really well together. I mean, we haven’t had any real issues. Certain entities will say, well, we’re having an issue here. We’re able to adapt and change and rewrite the plan.
Rodney Payne: And how have you gone about determining the carrying capacity or optimum level of visitors? And is that dynamic?
Ken Murphy: It is, and that’s where the Forest Service is evolving. I mean, they’re going through a comprehensive plan right now, figuring all that out. When they come up with their access numbers, and that’s that balance between the county and the Forest Service, what can the road accommodate?
There isn’t a bike trail system up to the Bells right now. That’s one of the things being discussed about how do we develop a bike trail there. So, they’ll develop that use number, and then from there, probably pass it down to us and say, Okay. This is your limit, coordinate the reservation system based on those limits. A bus only has a certain capacity and you know, there are only so many buses you can run efficiently within a day.
Rodney Payne: You mentioned earlier visitor experience. What sort of feedback are you getting from visitors?
Ken Murphy: Wonderful. You know, yes, those who don’t get a reservation or don’t get a reservation at their particular time. They may not be as happy, but for the people that get up there, they really feel like this is a beautiful wilderness scenic experience versus a public park in a city or urban setting. This is not an urban setting. This is the Rocky Mountains, and people are very happy with that experience.
Rodney Payne: And what about residents? What’s their reaction been, and is there any sort of preferential access for residents?
Ken Murphy: There hasn’t been as yet, no. I mean, there’s a lot of residents that ride their bikes up there, and they’re not impacted. I suppose the biggest thing for residents is that impulse. You know, it’s taking away that impulse. And it’s obviously got an expense. When you have a system in place, and transportation and staff and call centers, there obviously has to be a price point. And I think the Forest Service and the County and the City work on, with RAFTA, what the price point is, is fair and equitable to all parties.
And I suppose that way the locals, if they’ve been here for a long time, have said, oh, it used to be free to go up to the Bells. Unfortunately, some programs, you know, have to be paid for. But I think the price is fair and equitable.
Rodney Payne: What are some of the other challenges you’ve noticed in the community? You’ve been here a long time. What have you seen?
Ken Murphy: I suppose it’s our growth, and then how do we accommodate that growth within a narrow valley? I mean, we can only build so many houses. We can only accommodate so many roads. We have full-time residents, part-time residents, and day visitors. How do we balance all that volume with the limited infrastructure, not based on, can we build more? No, I mean, Mother Nature and our geography sort of prevent us from building more.
Rodney Payne: So if you think about the infrastructure challenges and the housing challenges, if you’re in charge for a day, what would you do? How would you fix it?
Ken Murphy: I think there has to be a balance. We’ve found this year a really unique way for housing.
We partnered up with Aspen Valley Ski Club where their staff like to chase the snow. They’re here for the wintertime. But the club itself didn’t want to carry an apartment for the whole year. Well, I only need it for the summer, they only need it for the winter, and the balance of the spring and fall between there.
So we partnered up with them, and we actually got employee housing, that is a shared use, again, it’s that flexibility. So they’ll take it for the winter, we take it for the summer, and that’s been a wonderful success. There’s a lot more opportunity to do that.
Do we keep building to provide employees housing? Or do we come up with a balance of, how much business do we actually really want? And how much housing do we actually need?
Rodney Payne: Can you talk about how you work with the ACRA and Eliza’s team?
Ken Murphy: Yes. So when we got involved with both Maroon Bells and Hanging Lake, our business model is that the private entity should never be front and focus. This is public lands. We should be behind the scenes. So, we don’t have a website. If you try to look for H2O Ventures, we’re difficult to find.
We believe that the reservation system should sit on the Chamber website. It should be owned by the community. So having it on the Chamber website maintains that oversight.
Rodney Payne: So you’re the back end for the parks and the tourism and you make things happen in the background, but they’re the front end for the visitor.
Ken Murphy: Exactly. And that’s the way we feel that these public lands should be managed. You know, we all have our skill sets, and I think the Forest Service and the city and the county, they know our skill set in the sense of customer service.
We move people in recreation anyway in our independent business. And so we work it from behind the scenes.
Rodney Payne: And what’s the business model for you? Is it something that’s interesting?
Ken Murphy: Oh, it’s fascinating. I love problem-solving. Here’s the issue. What would you do if you were in charge for the day?
And then we give the ideas. For instance, no one had an idea of how many bikes were heading up to Maroon Bells. It’s been difficult to quantify. Yes, you can put strips across the road, but people can be doing 360s around those strips and so on. So, they came to us with that problem last year, and we developed an RFID chip that actually is in all of the commercial e-bikes in town that access the Maroon Bells.
We installed scanners at the welcome center when they go through the ranger station, and then we were able to quantify how many bikes were going up there and how many bikes for each company. So, that’s where the public entities reached out to a private entity.
I mean, that’s what we do. We’re entrepreneurs. We problem-solve. And the system seems to be working very well. It’s back in action this year. So, after a few years of operating, the Forest Service, the County is going to have a number of data that they actually can then maybe decide do we limit use, do we increase use, how do we deal with the volume of bikes going up there?
Rodney Payne: There are a lot of places around the world struggling with the congestion of remarkable experiences. What advice do you have for them?
Ken Murphy: Everything can be achieved. One of the best things we ever did is, we have a facilitator. So we have all of our stakeholders that are working to make the Bells and Hanging Lake a really good project. But behind the scenes, there’s another entity, that’s the Volpe Center. Now the Volpe Center has a facilitator that has no skin in the game.
They’re just there to keep our meetings efficient, keep us on task. And I think what made it successful was we had a facilitator. There was no benefit for the facilitator to keep us on task. It wasn’t as if the Chamber was managing our meetings or the County, or the private entity. Having that outside facilitator has been, I think, a real positive to the group.
Rodney Payne: So I’m going to summarize what I think I’ve learned and heard, which is that there are going to be some gems in the world that are going to get so popular that not everybody who wants to see them will be able to see them on that particular day. And so you have to start managing the volume of visitation according to the carrying capacity in various bottlenecks of those places. And that you’ve found a solution here by bringing an independent facilitator together to help foster a partnership between the tourism entity, the Forest Service, and a private entrepreneurial group with experience in managing volume. And that’s resulted in an ongoing mutually beneficial relationship that helps the visitor experience and, over time the resident experience as well.
Ken Murphy: Yes, I think what the major point is, the first step was protecting the resource. The resource can only handle so many people until that resource is not the resource that we see in our pictures, see in video, people have memories of, and it’s maintaining that. We want somebody who visited Maroon Bells 30 years ago that maybe you know, had that memory of this beautiful lake and pristine lake with not so many people there, has come back now 30 years later and because of the operating plan is still experiencing that. When maybe five, six years ago, prior to the operating plan, they would have got up there and said, oh, this is more like an amusement park and we never want to be that.
Rodney Payne: Yeah, so the primary objective needs to be protecting the resource first.
Ken Murphy: And then protecting the experience.
Rodney Payne: And then protecting the experience.
Ken Murphy: Yeah, it’s not really just managing transportation, it’s, it’s the customer service.
The Aspen brand starting with Aspen Ski Company is built on incredible customer service. Taking that and putting that into the operational plan of Maroon Bells has been the success. Aspen’s built on quality customer service. Maroon Bells is going to give you that great customer service too.
Rodney Payne: Last question for you. What do you think Aspen can teach the world?
Ken Murphy: Great question. Customer service. I mean, we’ve got it dialled in here. But also Aspen is very protective of its resource. And it’s not all about, the volume of people. It’s protecting that resource, maintaining that resource and what we’re used to seeing and finding the balance for the amount of visitors that want to come here.
Rodney Payne: I really appreciate you taking time this afternoon to come and sit with me and talk. I think what you’ve done, and what you’ve learned is so important for other people to hear about who are facing similar natural resource challenges.
Ken Murphy: Yeah. Thank you. It’s been my pleasure.
David Archer: This has been Travel Beyond presented by Destination Think. We’d like to thank Aspen Chamber Resort Association for sponsoring this season. You can find previous episodes of Travel Beyond and more information about this one at DestinationThink. com slash blog. My co-host is Rodney Payne. This episode has been produced and has theme music composed by me, David Archer.
Danny Gariepy recorded this season’s interviews with Rodney on-site in Aspen. Sarah Raymond de Booy is co-producer. Lindsey Payne, Annika Rautiola, Katie Shriner, and Kaylee Wallace provided production support. You can help more people find our show, as always, by subscribing and by leaving a rating and review on Spotify or Apple Podcasts.
Next time we’ll speak with Auden Schendler, Senior Vice President of Sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company.
Auden Schendler: A strong focus on legitimate system-scale action is really important, and we want to play on that. We don’t want to play on, you know, day-to-day token environmental work. We want to go big.
David Archer: See you then.
And one last note about Aspen.
Eliza Voss: I’m Eliza Voss, and I should note that we are recording in Aspen, Colorado, the ancestral territory of the Uncompahgre tribe of the Ute Nation. We honor the inherent stewardship Native people have for the land, waters, and air that our residents and visitors continue to have the privilege to revel in.