Hey, That’s my Parking Space!

We had a snowstom in the Northeast last week but as far as I’m concerned, the real storm is the one over parking that immediately follows the one with the snow.  Few local customs generate as much controversy as the tradition of “space savers.”  These are objects such as broken lawn chairs or traffic cones people use to “reserve” their parking spaces after spending time and energy to dig their car out of the snow.  People who remove a space saver to park there have been known to have their car vandalized in retaliation.

Some people consider the right to temporarily own a public parking spot the legitimate reward for investing time to dig out their car.  Others feel street parking is a shared public resource allocated on a first-come, first-served basis and there is no justification for even temporary ownership.  Local government had historically stayed out of the controversy, but in 2015 Boston Mayor Thomas Menino instructed garbage crews to remove space savers 48 hours after a storm ended.  This essentially enshrined a policy of two-day holds on parking.

From a resource allocation perspective, this is a terrible use of shared property. This hoarding behavior reduces utilization for everyone.  Hoarding happens when there is unregulated scarcity and cooperation breaks down. 

This issue is not unlike what we sometimes see in the perioperative suite.  Tenured surgeons claim ownership of OR blocks because they’ve historically used those blocks and have come to rely on them being available at their convenience.  Management is often reluctant to alienate those long-time surgeons and impose policy that would improve utilization of blocks by re-allocating them to someone with a larger caseload.  Newer surgeons are forced to “drive around in circles” looking for OR blocks, while prime time goes unutilized.

The following anecdote illustrates an alternative path forward.  I got my haircut this morning and was making small talk with my barber about the space savers and he told me about the time he took someone’s space saver when he arrived at his shop in the morning.  I was shocked to hear him admit to such a blatant violation of street rules.  But instead of just tossing the space saver aside, he placed it on top of his car with a note on his windshield saying:  “I took your space.  Please call me at 617… and I will give it back to you.”

Around 4:30 PM his phone rang from an unfamiliar number.  He answered and said: “You want your space back?”  Sure enough, it was the original parker.  The barber went out to move his car, prepared to apologize, but instead of being upset, the parker was grateful to him for keeping her space with an actual car.  She was nervous someone would take her space and she admitted she was unwilling to do anything to retaliate.

She then said, “I actually have something to ask you … can you do this again tomorrow?”  For the rest of the week, they arranged over text messages to share the space, allowing the barber the space during the day when he was at work and her the space overnight when she was home.

I share this story because it illustrates how cooperative behavior can lead to optimal utilization of resources.  Both parkers had the peace of mind to know their space would be available, and the space was also fully utilized.  Neither parker had to waste time looking for parking.  Hospital ORs can also benefit from this sort of shared behavior where, instead of competing for scarce resources, users coordinate to maximize utilization.

For more on space savers: http://lmgtfy.com/?t=i&q=space+savers+boston