In Pittsburgh (and in Baltimore, and Philadelphia, and Boston, just to name a few), it works something like this.  First, you spend the an hour or so shoveling the freshly fallen snow (if you’re lucky) or the hardened, impossibly heavy slush (if you’re not so lucky) to carve out a parking space for your car.  Then, when you need to leave the spot, you take an item– perhaps a chair, but trashcans, traffic cones (I’m still puzzled as to how so many of my neighbors just have these lying around at their homes), and even ladders will suffice– to place in the spot as a way of claiming it while you are away.  When you return, your spot is (generally) still there.

This logo (via wearpittsburgh) captures the sentiment nicely, and in a tasteful black and gold, might I add.

How and why, exactly, does it work this way?  You don’t have to be a lawyer or a property law scholar to know that a street parking space is public property and cannot be converted into private property through the strategic placement of a lawn chair.  But, legal niceties notwithstanding, the custom of recognizing “claimed” parking spots is alive in well in a number of Northeastern cities.  There’s even a Wikipedia entry on the “Parking Chair.”

But there’s debate to be had.  Prof. Michael Madison has a nice summation of both sides of the debate (“pro-chair” and “anti-chair“).  The pro-chair argument basically tracks the argument for the traditional labor theory of value, famously articulated by John Locke.  This argument says “I shoveled the spot; now it’s mine.”  Adding to that argument, you could argue that without the resulting property right people wouldn’t have an incentive to shovel out parking spaces.  The anti-chair argument basically says that people are going to shovel out parking spots no matter what, so there is no need to provide an incentive to do so.  Prof. Madison focuses on the nasty self-help remedies (e.g., keying someone’s car or heaping snow on top of it when they “steal” a parking spot that was previously claimed) as one factor that favors the anti-chair camp.

So who’s right?  Boston has attempted a compromise somewhere in the middle, which I think makes sense, at least in theory.  The rule in Boston is that you can keep a spot once you shovel it out and mark it, but you only get to keep it for 48 hours.  The Boston Rule agrees with the pro-chair camp’s basic point– people won’t shovel out spots (or at least as thoroughly) if you don’t give them some sort of expectation that the spot will be there when they come back.  But the Boston Rule (again, at least in theory, because no one in Boston seems to be following it, according to the article) also recognizes that, unless people have to give up their spaces at some point, the city will remain filled with mounds of snow where decent parking spots used to exist.  This is a great argument from an economic efficiency standpoint– and it’s probably the best argument for the anti-chair camp.

In any event, the parable of the parking chair offers a couple of important lessons.  First, property rights matter.  No matter how you shape them in terms of breadth and scope, property rights at some basic level are essential to getting things done, be it the creation of a parking space or the development of intellectual property.  Second, custom is sometimes more powerful than law.  Many of us will take a calculated risk when the risk that’s being taken is only a parking ticket.  But how many of us in, in Pittsburgh or in Boston, really want to take the risk of moving some guy’s carefully-placed lawn chair?