Saving Spaces

As many of you may know Boston is currently buried under a historic amount of snow.  What you may not know is that Boston has a proud (infamous) history of space savers that appear as the snow starts to build up.  What is a space saver?  It’s anything that can be placed in a shoveled out parking space in order to prevent it from being taken while you are away.  Trashcans or purloined traffic cones are perhaps the most common but everything from ironing boards to wicker lawn chairs have made appearances on the streets of Boston.  It’s a tradition that has grown out of a perennial parking shortage that is exacerbated when a limited supply of parking spaces is reduced by the presence of snow piles.

It is also a very controversial tradition.  Ask any number of Bostonians what they think of space savers and you’re likely to get an even split for and against.  This controversy has played out in bans on space savers in a number of adjoining cities (Cambridge and Somerville for example) and in one neighborhood (the South End) where finding parking can be particularly heinous.  Despite this, Boston has so far refused to enact a city-wide ban on space savers.  And it turns out that may be the economically rational policy (despite the veritable yard-sale that sprouts on its streets every winter).

Parking spaces on public streets are a version of a common resource; anyone who has a car can use them and, except in cases where a resident sticker is required, no one is excluded.  From the perspective of those who oppose space savers the fact that there is snow on the ground does not change the nature of street parking.  Shoveling out a spot does not give you an extra right to that spot.  It is still a common resource that anyone can use.

But economic theory has a lot to say about common resources.  Namely, if you can’t exclude others from using them you run into the “Tragedy of the Commons.”  In its basic form the tragedy describes a situation in which too many people try and utilize a limited resource and, ultimately, degrade that resource.  Now, too many people parking on the street is unlikely to degrade the street.  It just means some people won’t get parking.  But there is a second aspect to the Tragedy of the Commons.  That is, no one will invest in improving the commons because the benefit of that investment would go primarily to other people (since the investor can’t limit access).

Here we see the applicability to space savers and parking in Boston in the winter.  If I shovel out a space on the street I have improved the common resource that is street parking by increasing the number of spaces by one.  If I can leave a space saver, then I can ensure that I enjoy the fruits of my labor and so have an incentive to do the shoveling.  But if I can’t, and someone comes (who presumably did not shovel out a space) and takes my space, I have no reason to shovel out a space.  If this happens many times it is unlikely that I will continue to shovel out a space.  Instead I will become that person who takes someone else’s space.  The end game should be obvious: eventually very few (if any) people shovel out spaces and everyone is worse off.

So while space savers may be unsightly, they also likely (counterintuitively) increase the total parking available on a street.  That should make everyone better off.

Now, opponents of space savers may appeal to a notion of civic virtue or neighborliness to argue the scenario I describe above wouldn’t happen.  They might suggest people will shovel out spaces collectively and for the benefit of the neighborhood as a whole.  That is certainly possible (and is what actually happened on my street).  So perhaps space savers are not necessary.

But this (somewhat) facetious example does serve to illustrate the challenge of managing common resources that plague many communities around the world.  One solution to managing these resources is privatization (i.e. space savers).  Elinor Ostrom won a Nobel Prize for proposing several others.  Privatization is a solution that is controversial because privatizing does limit access and some may end up worse off.  But sometimes privatization can make everyone better off by encouraging investment and improvement of the common resource.  So perhaps Cambridge would have clearer, albeit more colorful, streets if they allowed space savers.


Image Credit: Twitter user @slumsofharvard


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  • Sam

    The person who shovels out a space is the driver of a car already in that space. It doesn’t seem like that person is really “increasing the number of spaces by one”. So is there really any benefit to allowing space-savers? Seems like all it does is raise the amount of time in which is a space is unoccupied.

    • Patrick

      At least in Cambridge, you can park private garages for free during snow emergencies. So if I know that I can save a space that I shovel out and so I shovel that out and don’t park in a garage I have increased the number of spaces relative to the scenario in which I can’t save the space, don’t shovel it out and stay in the garage.

      This is especially relevant if I don’t drive frequently, so can park in the garage during the storm, wait for someone who shovels out a space to do so and leave for work so that I can move my car into that space and then leave it there since I drive infrequently.

  • CKennedy13

    Hey that’s my gronk space saver!