Dan from Denver recently wrote into Unofficial with a Letter to the Editor bemoaning paid parking at ski resorts. Dan makes sure to hit all the reliable anti-paid parking talking points, such as “many resorts now see parking as just another revenue stream”, “many of these parking fees are simply a way for resorts to gouge skiers and snowboarders, rather than a reflection of the actual cost of providing parking” and the claim that it is “outrageous and completely unjustified” without any reasoning at all.
While I appreciate Dan’s vibes-based approach to his criticism, a simple look under the hood reveals a different story. In economic terms parking is a high demand good for which there is a fixed supply. When you have a good that is both limited in supply and in high demand, shortages for that good will occur. This was the status quo ante in which more skiers would show up than there were available spots, causing all kinds of headaches and negative externalities for skiers and resort ops. When faced with this situation, what should the resorts do? Because the supply of parking is fixed the only option left was to attack demand. By introducing pricing, the resorts were able to bend the demand curve down towards supply and created an equilibrium where the number of cars showing up on any given day would be less than or equal to the number of available parking spots.
Dan also claims that “By creating a traffic jam by having paid parking lots, ski areas are complacent in air pollution”, but offers no evidence how paid parking creates traffic jams. In fact, the opposite is true! Now that a cost has been imposed on driving, peoples’ behavior will shift as to how they arrive at the mountain. Paid parking discourages driving alone and encourages transit and carpooling. Both of those transit modes reduce the number of cars on the road, thereby reducing traffic congestion and air pollution. But don’t take my word for it. According to Matt Lewis, senior senior director of base operations at Park City Mountain, they saw an “average of 63% of cars carpooling and that jumped to nearly 70% on weekends” as well as “a 20% region-wide increase in transit ridership.” If you want to go after the resorts for not living up to their sustainability goals, go after them for having auto sponsorships, not for adopting policies that are proven to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
While I think charging for parking is smart, there are still changes that could be made at the mountains. Parking on weekdays, when there is less demand to ski, should be priced less than parking on weekends, when there is greater demand to ski. Carpool lots should be larger. Vail and Alterra should work with communities to increase transit service to and from the mountains.
Dan would be wise to contemplate the reasons why paid parking is good. Nobody likes paying for something that used to be free, but the economic argument for charging for parking is sound. And just remember this maxim: you aren’t stuck in traffic, you are the traffic.