Who’s ready to argue about space savers?
Apparently Matt O’Malley is, and unfortunately he has dragged me into it.
On Wednesday night, as the first flakes of the nor’easter were about to fall, the outgoing city councilor from West Roxbury became the first city elected official in decades to publicly call for an end to the practice of claiming public parking spots for private use.
He did so by texting me, just as I was happily falling asleep on my couch. “Check out my latest tweet,” he wrote. I assumed it would say he was running for mayor. Instead, it was essentially a guarantee that he never would.
“This may be unpopular to say,” he Tweeted, “but it’s high time we stop using space savers, Boston.”
This may be unpopular to say but it's high time we stop using space savers, Boston.— Matt O'Malley😷 (@MattOMalley) December 17, 2020
There are two reasons why O’Malley had immediately alerted me to his tweet. One: I’m a grown man who has made a lot of mistakes. Two: O’Malley knows this.
For circumstances largely beyond my control — I grew up in Southie, the epicenter of the space saver world, and then I became a journalist — I have been constantly dragged into our annual fight over the once-quaint and currently ludicrous practice of claiming ownership of a public parking spot just because there’s snow on the ground.
For years, I attempted to cover it objectively, attempting to weigh both sides, until I could no longer see both sides, especially after the South End successfully banned them from its streets without triggering the apocalypse.
It came down to a battle of logic against tradition, but in a city like Boston, tradition matters. O’Malley understands this; we have discussed it at length. A few years ago, we both ran the marathon, and wound up doing some long training runs together, where we endlessly dissected how absurd and dangerous the practice had become, all with the understanding that it was off the record because space savers are a third rail of Boston politics.
But O’Malley recently announced he would not seek reelection, which meant he finally felt free to state the obvious.
“At the end of the day, it’s barbaric what we have been doing,” he told me when we hopped on the phone. “We’ve been claiming public land. The whole thing is being abused. People are putting out space savers before the first flake even drops. And my fear is that there could be violence happening as a result. People are wound up and angry right now for a myriad of reasons.”
There are two simple-to-understand reasons to get rid of space savers, and no one wants to discuss either of them. One involves math. The other involves enforcement.
Let’s start with some basic arithmetic. Each space saver you see is a symbol of subtraction, for the car that had been in that spot is, presumably, not driving around in circles. It was driven somewhere and parked, most likely, somewhere else in the Boston area, thus taking up two parking spots — the one where it’s actually parked, and the one with the space saver. This is in a region that is starved for parking spots on a summer’s day, but happening at a time when the snow has cut heavily into that supply. When the South End banned space savers in the winter of 2014-15, one of the chief arguments —other than that it would cut down on neighbor-on-neighbor aggression — was that keeping all spots in constant circulation was a simple mathematical advantage.
“Spaces are going to be difficult to find, but spaces are difficult to find in good weather,” O’Malley told me. “It’s going to be an adjustment, but if we abandon the practice it will become unnecessary.”
Now to the problem of enforcement. There is none, other than street justice. The city officially allows residents to keep their space savers out until 48 hours after the end of the snow emergency. So what happens if you come home and someone “steals” your spot? The one the city said you get to own? You can’t call 311 or 911 and have them come out and tow the offending car out of your space. You’d be laughed at. So what is left is vigilantism, a code of enforcement that involves everything from angry words and angry notes to angry actions — broken windshields, slashed tires, neighbor-against-neighbor, in a city that condones the practice but is reluctant to go any further.
The current 48-hour system was put in place by the late Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who despised the practice, after he lost a very public fight with then-Southie City Councilor Jimmy Kelly when he tried to ban them outright.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh has continued the 48-hour rule, citing the old “you shovel it, you earn it” mantra whenever I’ve spoken to him about it. This is another flawed argument, because it’s not like you’re barred from putting out a space saver if you didn’t do a good job shoveling; and it also weirdly implies that the driver who might “steal” a spot did not have to shovel their own car to get out.
When I tried to ask Walsh about O’Malley’s position, a spokesman in his office sent me a statement simply outlining the 48-hour policy and a promise that if any individual neighborhood went through a thorough public process and decided it wanted to ban space savers, as the South End did, the city would support the decision. City Councilors Michelle Wu and Andrea Campbell, who are running for mayor against Walsh, never responded to requests for their opinion on O’Malley’s remarks.
When I asked Ed Flynn, the current city councilor from Southie, what he thought of O’Malley’s call for a ban, he sent me a statement that never even mentioned space savers, but instead called for “each of us to not lose sight of the big picture and to continue to treat all our neighbors with respect and empathy.”
Alas, there is a big problem with me and O’Malley getting into this mess: we both have driveways now. My parents still live in Southie, and my dad loves to play the driveway card when we have our annual argument over space savers. In his telling, it takes hours and hours and hours to shovel out a single car, but the snow in my driveway just magically takes care of itself?
My wife is outside right now with our magic shovel. I should probably go help her.