A Street View of Property
44 Pages Posted: 15 Aug 2018 Last revised: 23 Jan 2019
Date Written: February 8, 2018
Parking on public streets is scarce. The current allocation system for parking spots based on rule of capture coupled with low parking fees creates a tragedy of the commons scenario. The misallocation of parking has consequences for commerce, for access to public spaces, and for pollution and congestion. Municipalities have not widely adopted the solution that economists propose to solve this scarcity problem: increase the price. Politics aside, the reluctance of municipalities to do so may be explained by the unique nature of public property as reflected in well-rooted legal and societal constraints. This unique nature helps explain, for example, municipalities’ ban of software applications (apps) allowing occupants of curbside parking to “sell” their spots to would-be occupants in Boston or San Francisco. While the ban may be justified, the unique nature of public property is not incompatible with some well-designed, efficiency-oriented policies, as this paper will put forward. This article distills the legal constraints on curbside parking and any other public property management by drawing on case law regarding parking meters, case law on public resources managed in trust for the public, and decisions by municipalities regarding parking apps and privatization of parking meters. These constraints include, among others, that public property shall not be used to raise revenue, although placing a price on it may pursue other regulatory aims consistent with public use, or that municipalities shall not lose control of the public spaces dedicated to curbside parking. At a normative level, the above constraints provide a framework for assessing policies regarding curbside parking and, by extension the management of any other public property resources. At a positive level, the article proposes ways to make efficiency compatible with the principles guiding the management of public property. It analyzes to what extent the efficiency oriented policies that would translate into a price increase—variable pricing, tradable property rights, and privatization—clash with those principles constraining the monetization of public property. In addition, the article concludes by pointing to other situations where its analytical framework could be extended, such as other uses of public streets (for instance, use of public bus stops by shuttle-buses of private companies) or existing practices in connection to public resources of a similar nature (for instance, semi-privatization of beaches by surfers).
Keywords: property, public property, local government, privatization, public trust, parking
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