In Defense Of ‘Dibs’

GEEK EDITOR’S NOTE: We here at The Expired Meter, always strive to embrace opposing views. It’s for this reason I am truly excited to publish this guest column by Ms. Worthington. She has a contrary opinion to mine as far as the “quaint” tradition of using lawn furniture to save your just shoveled parking space or “dibs,” as some call it.

Up until recently, I had not come across an argument in support of “dibs” that wasn’t rooted in name calling,  or vaguely hinted at threats and violence towards people or the vehicles of people whom violate this alleged sacred tradition.

So I was flabbergasted when I came across her views in the comment section of David Hoyt’s piece against this practice “Meathead City: Winter Parking “Place-savers” and Other Primitive Behavior.

Read it over and give her ideas some consideration. It’s certainly making me look at the issue of “dibs” in a different light.

In Defense Of ‘Dibs’

By Paula Worthington

Yes, we’ve had a tough winter in Chicago, but we city dwellers like to pretend we actually enjoy, not just endure, the snow and the cold, not to mention our relentless search for on-street parking amidst it all.

So, how are we doing this year?

Not so well, it seems–from the proliferation of complaints about our city’s time honored “dibs” traditions (Check out this Hyde Park Progress post, the Parking Ticket Geek’s Huffington Post item, and this blog’s previous post ), I gather many of us think leaving lawn furniture in the street to reserve a newly shoveled out parking spot is a terrible idea.

But is that right? Might there be an upside to that ugly assortment of chairs, trash cans, and miscellaneous junk littering the public way following a snowfall? You bet there is!

Shoveling out a parking spot is work–hard work. Why bother shoveling if you won’t be able to reap the benefits? Saving your space with a folding chair means you’ll be able to use it when you return from work or the grocery store. Sure, some people argue that street parking is first come, first serve, and that taking your chances in finding a spot later is just how we do things here–kind of like “standing in line or waiting your turn.” (Thanks, Parking Ticket Geek!)

But actually, I would argue that this situation is nothing at all like “….standing in line, or waiting your turn.” Why not? Because while you are waiting in line, you are not actually producing a somewhat durable piece of public capital, and you are certainly not helping anyone but yourself. Sure, you might be listening to Latin instruction on your iPod–but that benefits you and only you, not you and other people.

In contrast, when you shovel out a parking spot, you create a semi-durable public asset–a usable parking space, and when you do so, we all benefit even when you alone have “rights” to the spot, as then you don’t cruise around the neighborhood looking for parking, spinning your wheels trying to get in or out of unshoveled spots and basically getting in everyone’s way.

In fact, people will shovel out spaces only if they believe they will benefit enough themselves to make it worth their while. That is, their private benefit has to be enough to justify their private cost of shoveling.

For example, some people simply must drive to work, so they will shovel their cars out no matter what. But other people might say, hey, I’ll just take the train today. Without some sort of “dibs” on the spots, only the “must work” crowd shovels–twice, in fact, once when they leave and again when they return, allowing “free riders” to take the first spot. Other folks just ignore their cars until it thaws.

But with “dibs”…well, who knows, both worker bees and commuters may shovel, meaning more shoveled spaces overall, and easier commutes and parking for all.

So, if we assign “temporary” post-blizzard property rights via lawn furniture in the street, we will give people more incentives to shovel out spaces. I know, it looks ugly, and I certainly think that 2-3 days post-blizzard is enough time for people to “recoup” their shoveling efforts. But I think this informal custom encourages people to shovel more than they would otherwise choose to do.

Going further, I think that, with some limitations, establishing “squatters rights” can actually be a good thing. We are not used to this practice here in the U.S., I think, because we usually have such a firm, clear, and enforceable sense of public vs. private property. But this snow shoveling business introduces a bit of a gray area, where to encourage private individuals to “pony up” and do the right thing, we have to give them a bit of (private) ownership in it. Think patent rights. Think land ownership in Peru (here’s the  New York Times account ) (I know, not directly related to snow, but a decent example of how ownership can encourage behavior we want to see more of.)

And as it turns out, Chicago (gasp!) did not invent this under-appreciated custom of using, ahem, “spacesavers” to save shoveled out parking spots. Bostonians know all about this practice (see this Boston Globe article), and the city of Boston has even codified the custom: according to the City of Boston’s website, “…Any spacesavers left in on-street parking spaces that have been shoveled out must be removed 48 hours after a snow emergency has ended.”

So, given our crazy world of unpriced and underpriced parking in all sorts of city settings, I think this strange custom has some merit, as a sort of “second best” response to a decidedly imperfect parking world.

About the author: Paula Worthington is a Ph.d who teaches economics classes at the Harris Public Policy School of the University of Chicago.

Photo courtesy of Blue Fairlane’s Flickr site.

5 Responses to In Defense Of ‘Dibs’

  1. irene sherr says:

    this proves my point that all community issues boil down to one issue – parking!

  2. irene sherr says:

    PS. this is an site. wow!

  3. [...] (“nasty, brutal, and short”). As University of Chicago lecturer Paula Worthington writes, “when you shovel out a parking spot, you create a semi-durable public asset—a usable [...]

  4. [...] of civic parking ("nasty, brutal, and short"). As University of Chicago techer Paula Worthington writes, "when we trowel out a parking spot, we emanate a semi-durable open asset—a serviceable parking [...]

  5. Diane Galley says:

    Up here in Canada, we also deal with “space stealers” when the snow starts to fly. Even though 99% of the people on our block have a 2 car garage in the rear, there’s a lot of “renters” who have more than 2 vehicles in a household so must park the overflow on the street. Here’s our problem, we live on a crescent, so parking at the curve part on the front street is not viable, as 2 cars must pass on the curve, so our neighbours have 2 cars parked out front before the curve, and we’re beside them but have room for at least 4 cars to park out front. So we have 3 vehicles and my husband parks the 1/2 ton truck out front, where there’s lots of room. However, the people across the street, 2 houses are rented and they each have 4-5 cars each, and their garages are full of junk, so all of them must park on the street. But, when they do park on our side of the street, they usually park right IN FRONT of our house, not to one side or the other, nope, RIGHT IN FRONT of the steps to our front door. Last time it snowed I was out front shovelling the sidewalk when a car with 3 young people parked, right in front, and went across the street. So I waited until they came back out & approached them with shovel in hand. I asked the young girl driving where she lives (obviously not around here) and where she learned how to park. She said What do you mean, I said, Look at the space you’re taking up, my husband will be home in 5 minutes in a 1/2 ton truck and you didn’t even leave him enough room to park on either side of you, don’t you know that neighbours do not steal other people’s parking spots right out front of their house, and anyway, who do you think I’m shovelling for, YOU?! She said sorry and that she was leaving right away anyway. But her mouthy boyfriend started calling me a B— and other nasty words. So I just want to know when did being “neighbourly” stop? The young kids today seem oblivious to what they do while driving, too distracted I guess, but really, who in their right mind would take up 4 parking spots in front of another person’s home & not even think about it? Also, this is not the first time the friends of the renters have done this, anytime there’s a party like Superbowl or New Years Eve, they are lined up in front of our home & our neighbours like they are paying the local taxes. Come on people, time to be NICE to your neighbours and stop parking in their spot!

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