Opinion

DANTE RAMOS

On space savers, murky policy enables misbehavior

A wooden chair used as a space saver in the South End.

Sean Proctor/ Globe Staff

A wooden chair used as a space saver in the South End.

Go ahead,just try explaining to the guy who just smashed your windshield or slashed your tires that he’s misunderstood the city’s nuanced rules about saving parking spaces.

In Boston, City Hall has come to accept, as least in a narrow sense, the informal practice of using trash cans, lawn chairs, and ironing boards to block off-street parking spaces after winter storms. Space savers are officially allowed only after a snow emergency has been declared and should be removed within 48 hours after the end of that emergency.

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In practice, though, space savers are a classic case of policy creep: As the message filters out into the neighborhoods, its complexities get lost, and out come the orange cones before the first flake of snow hits the ground.

The rules are generally clear in pre-storm statements from Mayor Marty Walsh’s office; before Friday’s snowfall, for instance, a press release noted, “Since a snow emergency has not been declared, there should be no space savers on our streets.” Yet the city’s “What To Do With Your Car When It Snows” web page describes the policy in one oblique sentence — “Space savers: Please remove space savers 48 hours after a snow emergency has been lifted.”

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From this, a resident can infer that space savers are tolerated to begin with. In practice, some people infer far more: that it’s totally fine to cordon off public space with household objects — and to inflict street justice upon anyone who moves them.

Ostensibly, the city’s tolerance for space savers recognizes the labor that neighborhood residents put into digging out parking spaces. But it’s clear from social media that some people put space savers, complete with threatening signs, on spots they didn’t even bother to shovel.

The notion that snow turns public streets into de facto private property after storms is harmful, and not just to civility. After a snow event last month, a man in Dorchester was shot in the abdomen, police said, in a disagreement over a spot.

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While Walsh can’t control how individuals behave, City Hall does set a tone — and it does decide the rules. Parking spaces, like any other commodity, are subject to the law of supply and demand. Yet, while Cambridge and Somerville charge for parking permits, Boston allows residents to obtain an unlimited number for free. This well-intended policy has a certain populist appeal, but the outcome is perverse. Last year, the Globe identified 300 households with five or more residential parking permits. And remember all those cars that sat unshoveled for weeks last winter? When permits cost nothing, even people who live in dense areas and seldom drive have no incentive to give up their cars.

Some tough love is in order. Parking on a public street is a privilege, not a right. The only reward necessary for digging a car out after a snowstorm is the ability to get into it and drive away.

The city’s space saver policy is too easily abused. Here’s a better rule that can’t be misunderstood: Put away those lawn chairs, because public streets should be first-come, first-served.

Dante Ramos can be reached at dante.ramos@globe.com. Follow him on Facebook: facebook.com/danteramos or on Twitter: @danteramos.
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