Civil Liberties

This Asphalt Is Mine!

Homesteaders in the snow


On Wednesday, three days after a storm covered the northeast in snow, the city of Boston engaged in an enormous expropriation of private property. Sort of. The actual items that were confiscated were piddling stuff: an assortment of chairs, crates, cones, and other odds and ends that shovelers had used to reserve the car-sized craters they'd created in the snow. Almost by definition, it wasn't stuff that anyone would miss. But each item represented someone's claim to something much more valuable: a place to park.

Those parking spaces weren't legally recognized property. Quite the opposite, actually. But if you consider the way they function in the real world, they look like an economist's model come to life.

Property rights emerge for many reasons, but two are especially important. One is scarcity: When you don't have an infinite supply of a valuable good, it's important to figure out who is entitled to what. The other is effort: If a man has put his sweat into something—mixed his labor with it, in Locke's famous phrase—he's more likely to claim his creation for himself. After a serious snowstorm, both forces come into play. Urban streets are usually government property, but the city's plows do not treat every part of the road equally. The central section—the area where driving takes place—will be cleared, if the gods of bureaucracy are smiling, by public employees. But you're responsible for digging your own car out of its spot by the curb. If that takes a lot of effort, and if other spots are hard to come by, it's natural to establish your homesteading rights by plopping a placesaver in the empty space.

In cities where snowfall is frequent, an entire ecology of customary curb rights has evolved. Anything substantial enough to withstand the wind can and probably will be used to mark a saved spot, from an empty beer keg to a used Christmas tree. (In my neighborhood in South Baltimore, one person staked a claim a couple years ago with a projection screen.) Most drivers are polite enough to respect these informal prerogatives. When they do not, equally informal sanctions come into play. These might involve angry notes. They might also involve smashed windows, slashed tires, or broken antennas. The local social contract varies from one neighborhood to another, with slightly or substantially different expectations in different areas.

In theory, all this is illegal. In practice, it's frequently tolerated. In December 2000, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley declared, "I tell people, if someone spends all that time digging their car out, do not drive in that spot. This is Chicago. Fair warning." That wasn't an official act of legalization—just a month later, the city's garbage trucks were collecting the placeholders—but it recognized the resilience of the system Daley's subjects had cobbled together for themselves. In Boston, by contrast, Mayor Thomas Menino has been attempting since 2003 to establish a stricter policy: You can hold a spot during a declared snow emergency and for 48 hours afterwards, but then the Department of Public Works can seize anything you've left in your space, whether or not the residue has melted.

Both approaches have produced their share of dissenters. Go to The Boston Globe's online message boards, and you'll see fans and foes of spot-saving firing volleys at each other. Some of the foes tell horror stories of disputes that got out of hand; one claims he "once had to park in a 'taken' parking spot because it was an emergency. My friend had fallen and broken his arm, and I was going to rush him to the hospital. I came back out to find not only the owner of the parking space, but the whole neighborhood vandalizing my cars. SCUM!!!" He has a point.

But mostly the foes stated that the streets are public property, demanded to know what law gives anyone a right to a parking place, and generally seemed bewildered at the idea of respecting a norm that hasn't been enshrined in city code. The spirit of class conflict hovers over the dispute; a picture emerges of Southie locals defending their turf as outsiders complain, in one poster's words, that "certain neighborhoods" are "trash."

In Chicago, meanwhile, the loudest critic of spot-saving is probably Tribune columnist Eric Zorn, who once called the practice "fundamentally small and divisive, an unfriendly, tacky exhibition of the every-man-for-himself school of crisis survival." That's a strange reaction to an order that could not have survived for so many years if it didn't depend on mutual respect and social support. Even the vandalism is a communal endeavor. When the legal scholar Richard Epstein described the system in "The Allocation of the Commons: Parking and Stopping on the Commons," a working paper he wrote for the University of Chicago in 2001, he noted that "the true owner" of a cleared space "will be able to marshal sufficient support from his neighbors to retaliate in spades against the intruder. Owing to the static nature of the interaction, it is easy to determine who counts as a violator—no one is so stupid as to break the window of his own car." If a car is encroaching, everyone's allowed to damage it.

A cheerier sort of cooperation comes during the digging itself. "If you live in a community and there's a really big snowstorm, you tend to get a bunch of people out in the street," says Philip Nyden, a sociologist at Loyola University Chicago. The fit assist the elderly; friends clear common areas together. Not every neighborhood works that way, Nyden notes, but "I do think that's more often the case."

Here in Baltimore, it's generally understood that a homeowner is supposed to shovel out not just his car but the stretch of sidewalk in front of his stoop. (You can, of course, hire a kid to do this for you.) This may or may not be required by law, but I've never heard of anyone actually getting a ticket for failing to do it; the only real sanction is the disapproval of your neighbors. It's the same sort of mutual responsibility that allows you to reserve a parking place you've uncovered. Tamper with one social ecosystem, and you just might injure the other as well.

That isn't the only incentive at work. Fred McChesney, an economist at Northwestern University, noted in a 2001 essay that the critics of place-saving "treat the situation as one of mere distribution of a given amount of parking space. But an economist would predict that permitting private property would incite others to expand the amount of space. And so it does. Not only do those who dug out their cars the first morning have a space thereafter, but neighbors whose cars were not on the street begin to hack away the snow masses created by city plows to make a space for themselves."

Add to all that the delightful menagerie of knick-knacks that mark the spaces—a ragged but endearing sort of spontaneous public art—and the system grows even harder to dislike. Vandalous excesses aside, the only real question is just how long these curbside squatters' rights should last. In some Boston neighborhoods, residents have been known to hoard a space all winter, snow or shine, raising the ire of outsiders who'd like a chance to get out of their cars. One possible response to this is a time limit imposed from above, such as Mayor Menino's 48-hour rule. Another is to consider whether the conflict reflects a deeper issue—in this case, a desire for more decentralized control over who can park on the block and when. Parking-permit arrangements are frequently too rigid and inflexible for local needs, let alone individual preferences; the city, not the neighborhood or the market, distributes the permits and sets the rules for their use.

If someone has had a traffic cone in front of his house for three months, that could conceivably mean that he's an anti-social jerk. It could also be a band-aid on a broken system. Peer closely at those chairs, mops, and trashcans nestled in the snowy road. What looks at first like a problem might actually be a signpost to a solution.