The ethics of the shoveled parking spot

snow buried car

Sometimes digging out a space is no small task.

If you've ever lived somewhere where you parked on the street, this has almost surely happened to you: you break your back shoveling out your car, run out for a few errands, come back and... someone has now parked in "your" spot. The one you painstakingly cleared.

(rage blackout)

So, what's the "right" thing in this situation?

shovel in snowpileIn favor of shovelers' rights

Winter parking spots -- especially during snow emergencies -- are valuable commodities. And if someone's willing to take a half-hour to dig through the plow pile and shovel out a spot, there's gotta be some sort of pay-off. They've improved the street.

Some cities have actually codified shovelers' rights. Boston allows "spacesavers" to be used in holding spots for 48 hours after a snow emergency (this is the King of such spacesavers). And the mayor of Chicago has asserted a shoveler's right to his/her cleared parking spot (though we're not sure what he would think about this kind of, uh, marking).

As this essay by Fred McChesney notes, there's economic theory backing up the "you shoveled it, you own it" idea:

... an economist would predict that permitting private property would incite others to expand the amount of space. And so it does. Not only do those who dug out their cars the first morning have a space thereafter, but neighbors whose cars were not on the street begin to hack away the snow masses created by city plows to make a space for themselves. As black patches increase, the snow melts fast along the cubs. In both respects, the result is not just distribution of a given quantity of space, but creation of more space.

And on top that, it just seems plain wrong to jack someone's spot. It's tacky.

In favor of the free-for-all

On the other hand, these spots are on public streets. And what gives people the right to "own" these spots -- especially over the course of multiple days? Sure, the shovelers put in effort -- but that effort primarily benefitted them (you can't drive your car if it's buried in a plow drift).

And as Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn -- a critic of saved spots -- points out, sometimes clearing a space doesn't even require that much effort:

More often than not, the lazy, selfish citizen bucks his car out onto the street, then scurries over to toss some junk on the bare patch of pavement that his car was parked over as the snow fell. He's done no shovel or broom work at all, yet feels entitled to claim squatter's rights for up to a week.

Snow can be pain. Such is winter. Deal with it.

So, where does that leave us...

Well, we probably lean in favor of shovelers' rights. We're not sure a city ordinance or anything should back them up -- but it does seem like common courtesy to respect your neighbor's effort.

That said, you gotta park somewhere. And sometimes the only spot is the cleared one.

Update: Check out this "shovel your own spot" sign from Albany on Passive Aggressive Notes. (Thanks, Ashley!)

By the way: the Washington Post notes that people have actually been killed over this issue.

[EconLib link via MR]


i love this article... i lived outside of boston (in Medford) for 3 years, and parking spot wars were serious business. people would key each other's cars, and leave nasty notes all the time. i even heard of a few incidents where people's windows were broken.

parking-spot stealers are awful.

I've lived in Syracuse, Buffalo, and now Albany -- three (OK, two) of the snowiest cities in the country. And this is the first I'm hearing of this tradition. Heavy snow in the winter is a fact of life up here, and if you park your car on public streets you cede your right to that spot the second you drive away, regardless of the "upkeep" you've put into it. I wouldn't think twice about grabbing an open spot if I was trying to park but by the same token I assume when I leave in the morning that "my" spot will be gone by the time I return.

I've lived in a number of extremely snowy places in the Midwest and on the East Coast, and I'd never once heard the ownership claim until a couple of weeks ago. You gave up your spot as soon as you moved, end of story.

My question is, how long can you claim ownership? I cancelled plans over the weekend because the only spots that were available within a mile of the place were (obviously) the ones that had been shoveled out. I didn't want someone trashing my car because I wanted a bagel.

Like Heather, i too once lived within the confines of the greater boston metropolis, and can only mirror her sentiment. Parking spots were closely gaurded, and even non-shoveled spaces would have garbage cans placed in the snow to denote that the public street space they marked out (and they sometimes hadn't even cleaned it out yet!) was "thiers." And god forbid you move someones can from the street space that they dont own!
Total hogwash i would say, as the deed for thier (if they even owned property, they were usually renters, just like me) property typically ended at the street right of way. In fact, this kind of territory dispute was more gangland-like than neighborly, so in response, i refused to participate by that barbarian code of ethics. Instead, i shoveled all the snow from the three spaces in front of my apartment into the one i deemed most desireable and accessable, and parked my jeep there. The jeep never complained about the additional snow, and i got the best spot on my block more or less by default as no car would dare try to conquer my snow heap. Two of my neighbors were real happy they didnt have to shovel much that winter! Plus, in the rare event that another SUV or truck would take my spot, i wouldnt cry about it, i would just go shovel another space open, so that maybe the little old lady down the street would luck out and find a clean space one day to park in.
To those who disagree: Tough. If you dont like it, sell your car and ride the bus. You own a car so you dont have to walk. Suck it up and shovel out your car like everyone else in the world. In fact, i would LOVE to have to ONLY clean out the area around a singular car. i now have a huge driveway that takes forever to snowblow, and i dont key my neighbor's car because i live in the northeast and have to move some snow. Just because you live in a city doesnt make you entitled to call a spot "yours", regardless of effort exerted in removing what mother nature has bestowed upon all of motoring-kind. To that extent, if everyone would get together like good neighbors instead of kermudgeons, im sure that more spaces would be kept cleaner, longer, with less animosity. Besides, the little old lady down the street could really use the help......

How would you enforce an ordinance like that? I would love it, but I'm skeptical of its power...

Long ago and far away, when I was an RPI student, parking spaces were at a premium in the summer, never mind the winter. As someone said, wars would break out of the parking space in front of someone's house, which reputedly was a homeowner's 'right'. Put 4 car owning folks in a student ghetto apartment and things started to get ugly with the rest of the denizens of the street.

Soooo, let me get this think you should be able to take up a parking space that you aren't parked in, possibly for up to several days at a time, on a public street, just because you shoveled your car out in the morning, which you would have had to do regardless? Owning a car in the northeast is inherently inconvenient, you're going to just have to accept that some day.

Thank God I have a driveway, so I can spend my time worrying about more important matters like dueling for a parking spot at Colonie Center on a Saturday night near the Cinema entrance.

Go figure. MINUTES after reading this article I find out some shmuck parked in front of my driveway. Hurry up and come get your car, A$$h0le because the tow truck is on it's way!

I'm going to echo Upstatesman and Alice. Such a concept is unheard of to me, and more than a little crazy. It's a public street! If you don't want to want to shovel your car and/or you want to claim ownership of a spot, rent a garage. It's just one of the cons of living in a neighborhood with very little off street parking. In the northeast.

The first time I learned about saving spots was in Baltimore. I found the only empty spot on the street that just happened to have a broken television in it. I figured it was garbage day so didn't think twice.

The second I got out of the car this little old lady came screaming out of her house telling me to get out of her spot or she was going to call the cops. I wasn't sure if she was serious or not, but I left anyways. When I got back to the office, I had one of my co-workers explain to me winter parking. has a story about the parking chair. Oh, those crazy cities.

Bottom line, if you want to be guaranteed a parking spot, live somewhere with a driveway/garage. You choose where you live. If it's such a big deal move.

This sounds crazy to me too! When I used to live in Center Square, before we splurged on a parking spot, I once stood in a spot right in front of our apt while my boyfriend went to grab the car across the street. Within a minute someone was backing in and not stopping over a girl standing in the way!

We then bought a spot. It was worth it!

I live in Troy and I need to get my neighbors to understand an even more basic ethic: the ethic of the private driveway. Seriously, I've been blocked in and unable to leave my own garage on several occasions. I even had one illegal parker hit and run by another. Ugh.

> Thank God I have a driveway

Yeah you might not even be safe with a driveway (hey, I'm not seriously complaining though, honest): I shoveled mine once, only to come back a few hours later and curse at a big truck that had parked in reverse in a spot next to it. He had pushed a goddamn snowbank back on my driveway. Unlucky for him, this was on St Patrick's day so I took my sweet inebriated time to shovel the snow back in his truck bed. Hope he enjoyed the free snow.

Did no one else see passive aggressive notes lately?
It even features a note from our fair city!

I live in Troy where we don't have snow emergencies and the roads don't get cleared until Friday, but I have to say people are ridiculous expecting their spots to be "saved". It's a PUBLIC street! I can't even imagine that people would get mad about it. If I pass a spot I'm taking it!

Move your feet, lose your seat.

I'm debating on whether to take the bus to work today because of the snow emergency and not wanting to fight for a spot later. Thems the breaks if you live in the city.

If you live in a city and you don't have off-street parking, you don't have a parking space. Period.

Good link Ashley. I checked them out and laughed, though they made me feel a little angry. The audacity of those people! Rent a spot or move to Florida people...honestly.

PUBLIC street.

But how do you handle the jerk that just swooped in and took the space you just shoveled out? I had my neighbor do that to me once, while I was finishing the clean up. Do you call the police when they tell you to move or they'll run you over?

I'm happy this doesn't happen to me anymore, I moved out of Troy.

Parting observation: We wouldn't have this discussion at all if Public Works did some regular snow removal. But maybe the new Commissioner will do his job better than Mirch did.

I can't fathom this working in downtown Albany. How would you honestly expect to save a spot on streets shared by State workers and those working in the neighborhood during the day, the college students and dining visitors at night, the regular alternate street parking insanity, the tow I mean Snow Emergency parking going on right now, and then the residents like myself?

If I have the money and it is a bad season, I pay for a private lot. Otherwise, it is a free for all as far as I am concerned. When I leave work early today to secure my Odd side parking, at least the slush will have been plowed by the city.

I live through all the craziness of parking during the summer festivals and that is just how it is to live there. I plan accordingly and get up earlier if I have to dig out.

> But how do you handle the jerk that just swooped in and took
> the space you just shoveled out? I had my neighbor do that to
> me once, while I was finishing the clean up.

Seriously. Just dig their car back in snow. Lots of it. Then, I don't know, spray some water on the whole thing. And put a carrot on top. Do it.

The drama that parking causes is just crazy! People become rabid maniacs because of the snow emergency. The entertainment value of it is purely amazing! Then there is the dilemma of the 24 hours later odd/even change over. Does one park on the odd side as soon as they get home from work, or wait until 8 to switch so the evil towers don't take your car away?

I want to know if this means that all the $%&^ing %*@bags who take up 2 spots at a time in center square get rights to both spots when they come back.

Really though: This is Albany. Its winter. You're gonna have to dig your car out. This doesn't give you special ownership of public space.

@Justin: totally true- it's all-year round. Last summer I heard two people screaming at each other maniacally over a parking spot. It was funny at first but then I started to wonder if someone was going to be shanked. The screaming went on for at least half an hour, no joke.

People get way too posessive about the space in a public street. I'm with Summer, CJ, et. al. It's a public spot. Build a driveway if you want private parking. Personally I think the space saving thing is inconsiderate and selfish.

And to be honest, this winter hasn't been that bad, parking-wise. I shoveled a little yesterday, I don't care if anyone takes those spots.

hmm... 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.

Interesting enough, Click and Clack discuss this very subject on 2/20's Car Talk podcast!

There IS a garage on Lancaster where you can rent spots. I've thought about it, but it's probably too expensive.

I live downtown so I can WALK to my errands. Got a grocery store, laundromat, restaurants, wine store - all right there. So my car can stay right where it is until I really need it.

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