The Parking Chair Thing

Snow this week has brought out the parking chair commentariat, from Chris B. (now creator of a Pittsburgh Parking Chair page on Wikipedia) to the Post-Gazette. They're talking chairs in Baltimore and Philadephia, too.

I understand the intuition that drives people to claim "their" parking spaces. I put "their" in quotation marks, of course, because there is nothing "their" about them - the parking spaces are on public streets. There is an interesting and increasingly lively debate among economists and property theorists about whether parking-chairs-in-cleared-parking-spots amount to a legitimate form of limited, customary, property right.

The argument goes something like this:

Pro-chair (and another essay that is especially pro-chair): I cleared the spot; therefore I own the spot. And if I didn't own the spot after I cleared it, then I wouldn't have an adequate incentive to clear the spot. Moreover, the community benefits from my clearing the spot, because that's one less spot that public authorities will have to clear. And long-time community acceptance of the tradition shows that it is welfare-promoting. The pro-chair argument is simple and straightforward.

Anti-chair (that's a small-ish Facebook group) (and chair-skeptic): The anti-chair argument is long and complicated. The idea that "I built it, therefore I own it" has a sophisticated but problematic pedigree in the philosophy of John Locke. For the most part, American property law rejects Locke as a justification for property rights schemes, even informal ones. (The fact that parking spaces occupy technically "public" property is relevant but not dispositive. I can't cut down a diseased tree in Schenley Park, put a fence around the clearing, and claim that the land inside is "mine." But I can't do the same thing on my neighbor's land, either.) No one needs the incentive of ownership here to clear out parking spots; mostly, people are clearing out their own cars, which they would do anyway. "Ownership" of the spot is a kind of cherry on top of the sundae - a bonus for doing your family duty. The community suffers from parking chair claims, because people who need places to park are foreclosed from a number of possible options. The strongest argument against the chairs is that enforcement of the parking chair regime is carried out mostly by self-help, which means various forms of vandalism. A lot of people are uncomfortable with that, whether or not the local community thinks that it's OK. The pro-chair folks tend to assume that it's the *other guy's* car that gets keyed, or loses its side-view mirror, or is covered with ice. Community acceptance of the tradition doesn't show that it's welfare-promoting; instead, it shows that the community is willing to internalize the benefits and externalize the costs of private enforcement.

There is no answer in this debate. The problem is that the parking chair phenomenon has been around for so long that no one is really sure what would happen if parking chairs *weren't* allowed. Maybe everyone would clear their spots anyway, and everyone would have places to park when they come back from work or running errands. Maybe no one would clear their spots, hoarding parking spaces out of fear that they wouldn't have a place to park after work or running errands. Maybe the population of the neighborhood would turn over rapidly enough that no one remembers that the place has to follow the same rules that were in effect decades ago.

Maybe the streets would be cleared, and everyone would take the bus.

Despite the fact that the parking chair phenomenon is not unique to Pittsburgh, I've always thought that it speaks an essential truth about the region: A lot of Pittsburghers would choose to dig a giant hole and sit in it over clearing a path of parking spaces that helps other people get moving again.


14 Responses to "The Parking Chair Thing"

jp said... 2/10/2010 10:32 AM

Hi Mike,

An admirer of outstanding metaphors, I'd like to highlight your work with Pittsburgh parking chairs and Pittsburghers' willingness to help others get back on the road.

"Despite the fact that the parking chair phenomenon is not unique to Pittsburgh, I've always thought that it speaks an essential truth about the region: A lot of Pittsburghers would choose to dig a giant hole and sit in it over clearing a path of parking spaces that helps other people get moving again."


Thanks for the laugh. The deeper truth may not be funny, but the image of a yinzer sitting in a snow hole to protect a parking space is.

Jonathan Potts said... 2/10/2010 9:44 PM

My sister-in-law heard the woman who lives above her screaming last night and storming down the stairs. It turns out she had taken someone's parking spot, and the aggrieved party was shoveling snow onto her car. Imagine putting that much physical effort into spite.

Anonymous said... 2/11/2010 1:23 PM

Why leave a chair? Why not leave something useful... say a shovel.

Jerry said... 2/11/2010 10:36 PM

So can we apply Occam's Razor here to conclude that the parking chair is a positive for the community (at least in the context of a crippling blizzard)?

One could call it spite to shovel snow onto another's car, or one could call it community enforcement of standards of neighborliness.

Lady Elaine said... 2/13/2010 9:39 AM

Nice post. I'm of course, pro chair.

Beth said... 2/14/2010 8:11 AM

I think your post is interesting. I was actually googling to find out what to do about the situation. I'm in Philadelphia and live on a very very small street- with parking on one side of the street only. We have no driveway and no garage, whereas the side streets coming into my little street do. The owners of those houses DON'T use their garages OR driveways, parking on the streets (including mine). I don't begrudge people a spot to park, but I DO become angered by neighbors who have more than one car, don't help ANYONE shovel out, don't even shovel out THEIR car, but then take a spot that someone else shoveled out. Especially if they have an SUV and can park ANYWHERE! I am amazed at how self-centered, self-absorbed people have become. When I first moved into this neighborhood over 20 years ago, all "young" people were out en masse helping each other shovel out, and shoveling out all elderly people. What's happening to us? Those of us who are still out there with our shovels now feel compelled to put chairs, cans, cones out. As a now "older" neighbor, I am still helping to shovel out anyone who needs help, but am trying really hard to stay peaceful. Where's Karma when you need it?

Anonymous said... 2/14/2010 6:57 PM

The Pittsburgh parking chair tradition needs to end. It is unethical, illegal and promotes nothing but selfishness and dissension amongst neighbors. It is not a cute "Yinzer" tradition but rather a form of vigilantism. It is based upon violence, not courtesy. Do not be deceived that it is the latter.

Personal example: My housemates and I (who own a total of 3 cars) cleared about 8 parking spaces worth along our street during the course of the snowpocalypse, in order to both clear parking for ourselves and also help out our neighbors. We did not set out chairs. Nevertheless, every spot we cleared has at some point been "claimed by a chair." We routinely toss those chairs aside as needed, which has thus far resulted in a call to the police over a violently angry neighbor who wouldn't stop screaming profanities and one of our cars being egg'ed. Again, to be clear, all over spots we helped clear but did not claim.

So people, do you want a civil society or the wild west?

Anonymous said... 2/17/2010 9:31 AM

Chicago also has a long tradition of parking chairs. Here, the authorities generally tolerate the chairs for the first two days after a heavy snowfall. Thereafter, tickets start to be issued for littering or abandoned property. I am in the anti-chair camp, because I believe that shoveling out a spot is more about extracting your car to get it moving, and less about preserving the spot itself. Further, say you clear your spot and then drive to another part of town to visit a friend. Someone might take your spot in your neighborhood, and likewise you might find a cleared spot in your friend's neighborhood and take advantage of someone else's labor. If no one uses chairs, everyone is better off.

Anonymous said... 2/22/2010 12:24 PM

Intellectual arguments will do you no good when you are removing egg from you car, buying a new tire or getting that new paint job. Unless you are looking for trouble, it is best to respect the parking chair and move on.

Catskul said... 2/22/2010 1:36 PM

IMO saving spots is clearly hoarding behavior that is anti-social, and causes a bigger problem than the small one it solves, effectively reducing the number of available spots in the city at a time when they are more scarce than normal, and when we all have had to dig ourselves out.

I actually wrote a rant about this myself.

Anonymous said... 2/24/2010 10:46 AM

Hello Mike. chair or not to chair...that's REALLY no longer the question. On my Mt. Washington street there are numerous rock solid piles of snow (from where the neighbors threw the snow) when we all dug out our vehicles. These intermitent mountains of ice dot the streets everywhere and, they themselves, are taking up the balance of available parking. I think that if the city wants us to play nice and get back to the normal side street parking practices of the pre-apocolyptic snow storm, they should launch a 2nd phase of snow removal in order to give us back all of the potential places to park. Just a thought.

Anonymous said... 2/24/2010 12:54 PM

I live in ths South Side but do not use a "Parking Chair", I'm a healthy 27year out and dug out many spaces in the past weeks to park my car. I under stand if a older person needs a spot in font of there house and puts a chair out. But most people that use a "parking chair" are lazy renters who dig out a parking spot but not there side walk.

Anonymous said... 2/24/2010 2:57 PM

To chair or not to chair....I think you are missing the point. I come from upstate New York and we have lived in Pittsburgh for 18 years so I have seen a lot of snow in the winter. The problem is that Pittsburgh has never been good about plowing the streets. The answer to me is alternate street parking during business hours to clean the streets TO THE CURB! Then there would be no need for chairs but until that happens I am pro chair. I have seen a lot of lazy people who not only do not clear where they park but also do not shovel their sidewalks!

Anonymous said... 2/27/2010 12:10 AM

hmm... Great Stuff!! Interesting comments. I was just doing research on this subject and came across a blog, where you can send in photos of the junk people put out on the streets. It's amusing.

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