Snow Job

Fred McChesney offers fascinating look at the economics of parking (property rights) in Chicago.

…Before snowfalls, a parking space belongs to the one who occupies it: you leave it, you lose it. In wintertime Chicago, however, excavating one's car changes the system of property rights. Once car owners dig themselves out of their snow cocoon (Chicagoans carry snow shovels in their trunks for this), they claim the place they cleared as their own. How? Diggers routinely place lawn furniture, buckets, two-by-fours, bar stools, orange highway construction cones and other markers in the space they have just dug out. That means the space now belongs to the excavator. When he leaves, the markers dictate that the space must sit empty until the owner returns. “People do look at these spaces as their own property,” a local law professor comments.

The space belongs to the original snow-mining engineer until the snow melts along the curb. Woe betide anyone who would take that space while its owner is away. Others in the neighborhood—who have undertaken similar excavations and staked out their own spaces—will protect the space for its absent owner. Broken windows, scratched paint, deflated tires and other punishments often follow parking in a space designated by whatever debris marks the excavator's property.

Perhaps surprisingly, this vigilante justice is of no concern to the forces of law and order. Mayor Richard Daley said last winter, “If someone spends all their time digging their car out, do not drive into that spot. This is Chicago. Fair warning.”…

The Chicago snow system is an interesting story in its own right, but better, it teems with economic lessons about property rights. First, there must always be some mechanism to allocate scarce goods. But sometimes, private property (either a formal legal claim or an informal right respected by others) is not necessarily required, nor necessarily desirable. Property is costly to define and enforce. In good weather, open access to street parking requires no definition or enforcement of property, and allocation on a first come, first served basis works well enough. However, open access as a property-rights system works less well when scarcity increases. No one claims parking spaces on the street except in winter, when conditions reduce the number of parking spaces.

Second, government is not necessary for the definition and enforcement of personal property rights. The Chicago system operates totally privately. Other than columnists, the main complainers are newcomers who don't know the system until they get a broken mirror. Admittedly, this is a cost of operating the system (although, naturally, just a one-time cost).

In addition to car damage, the Chicago system is costly in keeping spaces from being used while their owner are away. But that is true of any private property, by definition. A Northwestern fraternity could, in principal, use my house while I am away for the weekend and don't need my bedroom, but the costs of my allowing that are obvious. Private rights are not free lunches, except in nirvana.