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road sage

When it comes to dealing with the elements, motorists are among the most wilfully oblivious people on the planet. No matter how bad it gets, you still find them out on the roads and highways, spinning, skidding and otherwise causing unnecessary trouble. “Nature never deceives us,” wrote philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, summing up the predicament. “It is we who deceive ourselves.”

We, as in “we drivers” think we can handle it.

When the worst of a snowstorm is over, motorists face an ethical conundrum. I’m referring to the post-snow-event phenomenon known as “parking dibs.”

After a few feet of snow are dumped upon an unsuspecting city, its drivers begin the arduous task of digging out their street-parked vehicles. Once their vehicle has been excavated, the driver has a problem. They’ve just spent a lot of time and effort creating what looks like the snow foundation of a small house. It has four sides and an opening large enough for the car to pull out. The snowstorm wiped out street parking; it is at a premium. There isn’t much space, if any, to park. When the driver leaves their snow-encased parking spot there is no guarantee it will be unoccupied when they return.

Solution? Call “dibs.” Stick an old chair, a garbage container or a couple of plastic bins there. The driver has staked their claim. Dibsters can be creative. Chicagoan Adam Selzer once went so far as to freeze pairs of his pants and use them for parking dibs.

On the side streets of cities such as Boston, Pittsburgh and Chicago, parking dibs is tradition. In the Windy City, for instance, parking dibs is a tried-and-true practice, one the municipal government is trying to combat. After the city was hit with a huge snowfall in late January, Chicago alderman Ray Lopez had parking dibs markers removed. There were 829 city-wide complaints about parking dibs and nine truckloads of debris was picked up.

Parking dibs happens in Canada, but not to the same extent. Apart from the occasional orange cone or piece of lawn furniture, you don’t see it too often. This phenomenon is something I’ve pondered over the years. Chicago and Toronto are often said to be the most similar of American/Canadian cities. There are stark differences, of course, but as far as climate and snowfall are concerned, they are similar.

Why is parking dibs endemic in Chicago but uncommon in big Canadian cities?

Are we too nice? Too passive? Or are we too nasty? Are we too nicely, passively, nasty?

It depends on which side of the shovel you are on.

It’s likely that those Canadians who shovel their vehicles out believe that “parking dibs” is implied. There is no need to put out a lawn chair or a portable toilet to mark your territory. What sort of a classless oaf would occupy a spot they did not dig themselves?

Those who have been circling the block for 30 minutes in a snowstorm, searching for an open spot would have a different opinion. Parking dibs represents a selfish, entitled claim to public space. Parking dibs is an indictment of our capitalist system and should be challenged at every opportunity.

Notice that neither of these two groups crave confrontation.

The most likely explanation as to why parking dibs is not as Canadian as maple syrup, is that it simply hasn’t taken hold here. Parking dibs is caused by herd mentality. Once the first few pieces of lawn furniture are set out to claim spaces, it creates the perception of scarcity. Street parking spaces are being snatched up. If your neighbour is going to claim their spot with dibs, then you better claim yours. Parking dibs spreads like Dutch Elm disease.

Parking dibs has received academic attention from legal scholars. In 2001, Professor Richard A. Epstein (then at the University of Chicago) examined the practice in a working paper “The Allocation of the Commons: Parking and Stopping on the Commons.”

“It takes time and effort for anyone to dig out the spot. No one will therefore undertake this particular case unless he has some assurance that he will internalize the future gain from the activity. That gain will be too small if it is confined to the ability to use the parking space for a single time (just as it will not take place if it is known that the street will be promptly plowed and cleared). Hence what is observed is a trade-off not dissimilar to that found in the patent and copyright law. The initial digger of the spot is given a limited monopoly for its use – that is one that lasts only until the snow melts or is cleared away – as the quid pro quo for clearing out the space in the first place.”

Epstein, who is now a professor at New York University School of Law, argues that the scarcity created by the snow transforms property rights. “The rule of capture is modified to protect the return right over the local territory until the space itself disappears. Hunting seasons are obviously not involved, but the possession of the space lasts until the snow melts, or better, until the City carts away the snow from the block so as to make the exercise unnecessary.”

In essence, the knowledge that they will retain temporary rights (dibs) to their parking space motivates more people in Chicago to shovel, and as a result, creates more spaces. If there are no implied property rights, there is no reason to clear the snow.

Could be.

Meanwhile, back in Canada, drivers are shovelling, griping and grappling with their snow-fort parking spots. We will shovel out our spots, assume that no one should use them and then grit our teeth when they do. No use of force required. A subdued “good morning” to the offending driver should send the message loud and clear that we are furious beyond all belief.

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