Living Economics

Shovelers Keepers?
Uncertain property rights will lead to either underinvestment or unnecessary disputes.

A combination of limited parking spots and heavy snow has led to an interesting problem for motorists in Chicago. When snowplows clear the streets, the snow piles up against the parked cars. In order to retrieve the cars, car owners have to spend a significant amount of time shoveling the snow out of the way. Understandably, those who have done the hard work believe that they have a prior claim to the cleared space. After clearing a parking space various objects including chairs and crates are used to stake a claim. Violation of this system invites retribution upon the offender's car.

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley provided a tacit approval of the claims system, though no law has been passed. Without a clear policy there is no consensus on the property rights of parking spots. Some Chicago residents have even tried to write their own policies (O'Brien).

But there is no agreement on how long a motorist may keep their parking spot, a serious issue since snow may persist for months (Eig). Some motorists who disagree with the unofficial claims system have thrown aside their neighbors' street furniture. Disputes over claims have sometimes led to fights and vandalism. Many people simply leave their car in the snow all winter and use public transportation in order to avoid the trouble (O'Reilly).

Unfortunately, creating some kind of official policy would be difficult and costly. At the root of the problem is that the parking spaces change their fundamental nature as goods. For most of the year the residents of Chicago consider the spaces to be a first-come first-served serial commons good1 and city policies support that. In the winter some residents treat the spaces as private goods while others continue to believe they are commons goods. But if there is no claim on the fruit of one's labor, there would be insufficient private snow clearance.

The simplest and most effective solution is for the residents of Chicago to work together and shovel out all the parking spots. Others have proposed this, but it does not seem to be catching on.

Note:
  1. A commons good is one that is available to all potential users but subject to congestion. A parking space is serially available to all potential users but only one user can use it at one time.
  2. A commons good is one that is available to all potential users but subject to congestion. A parking space is serially available to all potential users but only one user can use it at one time.
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