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?

(Continued from Page 1)

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."

Advertisement

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.)

Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

Tom Vanderbilt is author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, now available in paperback. He is contributing editor to Artforum, Print, and I.D.; contributing writer to Design Observer; and has written for many publications, including Wired, the Wilson Quarterly, the New York Times Magazine, and the London Review of Books. He blogs at howwedrive.com and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/tomvanderbilt.

TODAY IN SLATE

Technocracy

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

The Congressional Republican Digging Through Scientists’ Grant Proposals

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Whole Foods Is Desperate for Customers to Feel Warm and Fuzzy Again

The XX Factor

I’m 25. I Have $250.03.

My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.

The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I’m 25. I Have $250.03. My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.
Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

George Tiller’s Murderer Threatens Another Abortion Provider, Claims Free Speech

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 21 2014 3:13 PM Why Countries Make Human Rights Pledges They Have No Intention of Honoring
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 21 2014 4:33 PM Walmart Is Killing the Rest of Corporate America in Solar Power Adoption
  Life
The Vault
Oct. 21 2014 2:23 PM A Data-Packed Map of American Immigration in 1903
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 21 2014 3:03 PM Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 21 2014 1:02 PM Where Are Slate Plus Members From? This Weird Cartogram Explains. A weird-looking cartogram of Slate Plus memberships by state.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 1:47 PM The Best Way to Fry an Egg
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 21 2014 4:14 PM Planet Money Uncovers One Surprising Reason the Internet Is Sexist
  Health & Science
Climate Desk
Oct. 21 2014 11:53 AM Taking Research for Granted Texas Republican Lamar Smith continues his crusade against independence in science.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.