A parking chair is a chair that is used by a vehicle owner to informally mark a parking space as reserved for oneself. Other items are also used for this purpose, including trash cans, ladders, ironing boards, and other similar-sized objects that are commonly found in households. For curbside parking spaces, two or more items are normally used.
The practice of using parking chairs is common in inclement weather in urban residential areas of the United States where parking is scarce and vehicle owners do not wish to risk losing their vehicle’s previously occupied space in its absence. Other spaces may be scarce due to accumulation of plowed snow, and the owner of the vehicle may have invested considerable work in clearing the space, just to get the car out in the first place. This practice is considered especially common in the cities of Pittsburgh, Chicago, Philadelphia, and other cities in the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes regions.
The legality and level of enforcement of existing laws pertaining to this practice varies by location. Generally, curbside parking spaces are public property and are available to vehicles on a first-come, first-served basis. Still, respecting these makeshift markers has been accepted by citizens as a common courtesy during snowstorms. The practice is often most effective when accompanied by the threat or actual occurrence of a ‘look of consternation’ from a vigilant, often elderly neighbor who ‘keeps watch’ in their neighbor’s absence. While use is year-round, it is a particularly time-honored tradition in times of great snowfall accumulation, when a resident who ‘digs out’ their spot on the street essentially declares ownership, which often goes unchallenged by neighbors for fear of retribution.
The idea of the practice is that the person who has reserved the space is declaring dibs to the space from which s/he has freed his/her vehicle for future parking during the remainder of the storm and as long as snow remains on the ground. It is generally a Lockean recognition that the effort of the physical exertion of digging provides an entitlement to the space where the vehicle was previously located. But in some instances, spaces get reserved in this fashion even before a snowstorm starts. Photographic evidence of the tradition has been found dating back at least to the 1950s. It is believed that the practice existed even earlier, as the number of vehicles on a residential streets has exceeded the number of available spaces. The practice has been outlawed in some places, including the city of Washington, D.C., where enforcement is strict and violators are ticketed. In Baltimore, after the First and Second blizzards of 2010, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced that the city would not enforce an existing ban on the practice. She said that it could not be stopped, just like ‘people saying hon’ could not be stopped.
Despite long-standing community traditions surrounding parking chairs, many people argue from a variety of perspectives that the practice is incompatible with maintaining a civil and orderly urban environment. Most dense residential urban streets have fewer parking spaces than residents owning vehicles. Despite this, it is rare that all residents require a parking space at the same time. When residents use parking chairs or other markers to claim spaces, they effectively reduce the parking available to everyone, by removing the efficiency that first-come-first-serve public parking normally provides. Furthermore, guest and work vehicles are prevented from using available spaces when needed, without fear of retribution.
Even in cities, such as Pittsburgh, where parking chairs are generally tolerated, local police make it clear that public street parking cannot legally be reserved. Citizens are explicitly discouraged from using objects to block parking spaces. Because parking chairs are considered abandoned furniture, they may be removed at any time. Also, parking chairs have a strong negative aesthetic value that detracts from the appearance of a neighborhood and makes guests feel uncomfortable by the territorial notion that they represent. In cities where parking chairs are commonly used, the respect of informally marked parking spaces is driven predominantly by fear of retribution, rather than commonly-alleged courtesy towards neighbors. This private enforcement of informal rules is a form of vigilantism, which is considered inappropriate in a civil society.