Don’t take the “Chair Spot” – Private ordering of Public Resources

January 30th, 2011

A few weeks ago I was meeting friends at a local Pittsburgh bar to watch the Steelers play the Ravens. I was circling around the block and could not find a spot. Finally, I saw an empty spot and started to pull in. As I started to park, I realized someone left a plastic chair in the spot. So I got out of the car, moved the chair and parked. When I told my friends I found a spot right near the bar, they asked me if I moved a chair. Confused, I said yes. I was advised to move my car post-haste, lest my car get slashed. Apparently, in Pittsburgh, following a snow storm, people reserve cleared-out spots with a chair. The Boston Globe had an article about this, and Wikipedia calls them parking chairs. I had no idea. Now I noticed that chairs are littered throughout parking spots on my block in Johnstown.

From an economics perspective though, I wonder about this private ordering of public resources. Parking spots are a free commons offered by the state (unless there is a permit or meter system present, which is not the case here). A spot filled with snow is of no use to anyone, so private actors take it upon themselves to shovel it out. By placing a chair after a homeowner shovels out a spot, the chair-placer is effectively claiming a possessory title to the spot as long as the chair is there. Certainly this is not a property right the state would enforce. And if an individual moves the chair, the chair-placer would have no recourse at law–short of self help (e.g., slashing tires). Yet spontaneous social order, and customs and rituals emerge to allow people to allocate these scarce commons in the absence of the state’s intervention. Now, as an outsider, I was not familiar with these customs (I do not recall ever seeing parking chairs in New York, and I’d imagine people would not adhere to the furniture-based-admonition), but once I found out, I moved my car immediately. And in case you were wondering, my tires were not slashed. I moved it before the end of the game, so the owner of the chair-spot was almost certainly glued to the screen, watching the black and gold en route to the Superbowl.