Winter Parking Rules: Is it ethical to claim dibs on a spot you've shoveled?

How we get from here to there.
Feb. 25 2011 10:44 AM

The Ethics of Winter Dibs Parking

If you shovel your car out of a snowdrift, does that give you the right to reserve the space for days?

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But why does dibs exist in some cities and not in others, regardless of legality? Or in some neighborhoods while not in others? In Chicago, for example, there is a tacit and widespread belief that winter dibs is a "Chicago tradition," the implication being, in notes like this one, that violators must be clueless carpetbaggers. However David Hoyt, writing at the Expired Meter, points out that the "meat-headed" practice of winter dibs actually doesn't exist citywide (and has its opponents). "I'm happy to say that Hyde Park, the Presidential Neighborhood in the Presidential City, is mostly free of this cranky vigilante behavior."

This is where winter dibs gets interesting—not in high legal theorizing or grand political philosophies, but in the on-the-ground formation of social norms. As Robert Ellickson wrote in Order Without Law, "large segments of social life are located and shaped beyond the reach of law." Ellickson famously studied "open range" ranchers in California, who relied on a variety of informal mechanisms, rather than the law, to more efficiently settle disputes. But such practices are hardly limited to cattle ranchers: "Most homeowners live in one house long enough to anticipate complex continuing relationships with their immediate neighbors," Ellickson wrote. "They can easily discern when one of them has violated a norm of neighborliness and, because of their continuing interactions, can readily even up unbalanced accounts."

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And, in theory at least, this is the kind of "spontaneous order" that winter dibs allows. If a "free riding" neighbor takes another's shoveled space (or even their shovel), they can punish that person through gossip or more retributory measures. But is a parking space worth that? As a Chicago DOT spokesman put it, though "staking out a spot may save your space temporarily, it's bound to create problems with your neighbors." The University of Chicago legal scholar Richard Epstein has noted that on streets where multiple unit dwellings compete for curb space, "it is more difficult to determine who holds the right to dig out the parking space in the first place, so that, where parking is congested, the uncertainty of ownership rights ex post will dim the efforts to create these spaces ex ante."

But there's a larger issue. The economist Elinor Ostrom won a Nobel Prize primarily for her work studying the allocation of "common pool" resources (of which, theoretically, free on-street parking is one), particularly in cases where the famous "tragedy of the commons" had been avoided. As Lawrence Wright and Samuel Huntington observed in Social Capital, however, the common-pool arrangements studied by Ostrom depended on a set of vital criteria: Size ("as group size increases it becomes increasingly difficult to monitor the behavior of any one individual"); boundaries ("for spontaneous order to occur, it is important to put clear boundaries on group membership"); repeated interaction ("people worry about their reputation only if they know they will continue to deal with one another"), and a set of prior norms establishing a common culture, among others.

It's easy to see, via this model, why winter dibs emerges in some places and not others. The key factors include real or perceived car dependency (those who don't need their cars are less likely to shovel); population density and demand for parking (the greater the demand for parking, the more willing one is to remove any obstructions); along with some kind of sense (perhaps discussed by neighbors or simply replicated through transmission) that the norm itself exists. But in most urban areas, there are too many competing needs, not enough shared interests, and too much uncertainty over claims and justice. How do we know the person who takes a shoveled-out space didn't shovel out another space somewhere else? How do we know the person who placed "dibs" actually shoveled out the spot? Does the person who used a parking space in front of his elderly grandmother's house to drop her off really deserve to get keyed?

And, more distressingly for fans of spontaneous order, the practice is open to any number of abuses which themselves have no clear means of social enforcement. In Boston, for example, people have been spotted claiming "winter dibs" before snow has even arrived. In Chicago, Eric Zorn, a zealous dibs critic, has been chronicling the saving of parking spaces where very little shoveling had taken place. Even more unconscionably, a phenomenon has been spotted that is likely to strike fear into the heart of any urban parker: "summer dibs."

It's time to bury winter dibs. To paraphrase Yeats, * things fall apart, the shoveled parking space cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the street. Sometimes the state of nature is the best guarantor of civilization.

Correction, Feb. 25, 2011:This piece originally attributed the poem "The Second Coming" to Keats. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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