Civil Liberties

The Polycentric Parking System


Josh McCabe looks at people digging the snow off their cars in Boston and sees one of last year's Nobel laureates in economics, Elinor Ostrom:

On-street parking seems like it would be the mother of all tragedies of the commons. This is especially true after it snows. You spend all morning shoveling out your car (especially after the plows have come by and made a 20 foot high snow bank blocking you in) only to have some jerk who didn't even lift a finger come along and take it as soon as you leave. And indeed this happens in some parts of the city but usually only in the commercial districts where people don't park long enough to get snowed in anyways. How do people prevent the tragedy of the commons from happening? Are there violent altercations in the streets? Did the government privatize all the available street parking? Or maybe they instituted a whole slew of regulations on the matter?

The answer is: none of the above. Winter parking in the city is one of the best examples of what Hayek would call a spontaneous order or Ostrom would call a polycentric system. Public space is privately regulated by something as simple as putting an object in the parking spot after you've moved your car….And depending on what neighborhood you're in, you might just find your mirror missing or your tire slashed if you still decide to steal the spot. There are all sorts of local rules regulating the practice too. For example, you can't save your spot if there was only a few inches of snow on the ground and shoveling out your car once doesn't entitle you to that spot all winter. The rules are usually very local and organic.

Read the whole thing here. Paul Dragos Aligica celebrates Ostrom's work here. I defend those local and organic parking-place property rights here.