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Bucking Boston's parking 'rule'

TODAY I come to praise Mayor Menino, not to harry him. In trying to break Boston's habit of staking prolonged claim to shoveled parking spaces, the mayor is attempting something eminently reasonable.

Yet in a city where the old ways are too often considered the best ways (it's a wonder we're not still heating with coal), he's run into predictable resistance for his common-sense stance.

My first experience with the unspoken rules of Boston winter parking came more than two decades ago, when a roommate from the trusting Midwest came in the evening after a snowstorm marveling that he'd found an empty space almost in front of the rambling Brighton house a half-dozen of us were renting. Well, not quite empty. An old chair had been left in it, he said. The next day, he discovered his antenna had been snapped off.

A Boston friend tells a similar story about accidentally taking a spot someone considered his own, after a trash barrel marking the space had apparently blown down the street. She came back the next day to find all four tires slashed. Dismayed, she left a note apologizing for inadvertently taking the space, but noting that the retribution had been far out of keeping with the offense. That effort at reconciliation was met with this scrawled response: "Don't leave any more notes."

And so it goes. When people are allowed to assume they own the space they've shoveled, it brings out their worst instincts. Now, I have a vested interest in the mayor's winter-parking policy. After the blizzard in February 2003, I suggested something quite similar. "So here's something Mayor Menino could do," I wrote back then. "Announce that three days after a storm -- adequate time for residents to get their cars shoveled out -- crews will start carting the space-saving items away."

Last December, Mayor Menino, confronted by a rash of vehicle vandalism triggered by the space wars, did essentially that, declaring that people can claim shoveled spots only for two days; after that, city crews will confiscate the space-saving items.

Here's why the mayor's policy makes sense. Under the current circumstances, many spots go empty all day and well into the evening, even while people look for places to park. Indeed, the very anticipation of a storm leads to a hoarding of spaces, as residents decline to move their cars lest they spend long winter months locked out of a convenient location. In economic terms, the city suffers a loss of parking liquidity.

Even though many people realize that hoarding spaces doesn't make sense, without an enforced policy against it, bad habits drive out the good. Once chairs, crates, and cones start to mark spaces, everyone feels a need to claim a spot for fear of being left without one -- and pretty soon, you can find an entire empty block without a place to park. (And if you bravely leave unclaimed the spot you've cleared, occasionally you'll even find someone shameless enough to plant a chair there once you've driven off.)

The space-saving habit also encourages an impulse for retribution. Although most people probably wouldn't snap an antenna or slash a tire should someone take their spot, it's also clear that the assumption one owns what he shovels encourages that kind of vandalism.

Finally, under the traditional practice, all judgment about what is reasonable flies out the window. We all know people who, having scraped away a few inches of snow, feel entitled to claim a space long after the white stuff would have melted of its own accord.

Consider the alternative: If there is an open parking policy after two days, everyone will have a better chance at finding a spot when he or she needs one. (It's true that not everyone shovels his vehicle out that quickly, but if you can't move your car, you won't be occupying one of the shoveled spots, either.) People will not be exiled for long months to distant streets simply because they failed to find a good spot before the snow fell. Nor will they be reluctant to use their cars for fear of such exile.

In short, this is a case where a little government action can lead to a better situation for everyone. It's a credit to Menino that he's willing to buck Boston's territorial instinct in an effort to make things better. Which is one more reason why, on this one, I'm parked firmly in the mayor's corner.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is 

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