By: Spencer Milton
Eugene Mirman is a comedian most recognizable for his portrayal of Gene in the TV series Bob’s Burgers and least recognizable as a land use planner that uses his sit-down comedy to influence local ordinances. When Eugene arrived in Portsmouth, NH with his wife to go tour the area, he unknowingly violated a local ordinance which decreed that “No vehicle shall remain backed up to the curb, except when actually loading or unloading”[i]. This prompted him to publish a letter to the parking clerk containing the following in part: “What kind of horse$&it charge is that? It’s illegal to back into a spot? Before I embarrass myself, I want to make sure that Portsmouth is still inside the United States and not considered a part of Iran?”[ii] Although quite funnily written, Eugene’s promotion of American individualism in parking style is not just anti-American but poor local planning advice.
To start off, we should address one of the claims by Eugene: that the state of New Hampshire should not be in the business of telling people what to do because its motto is “Live free or die.” Although clearly intended to be humorous, Eugene’s interpretation of the motto is philosophically lacking. Freedom is not always encouraged by doing whatever you want whenever you want.
Maximizing freedom is in fact the reason land use planning and politics in general is justified. Sometimes, to maximize our freedom, constraints on freedom are necessary. For instance, perhaps sometimes I would prefer to drive on the left side of the road. Would freedom be encouraged or discouraged? Not being allowed to park in reverse is very analogous to this situation, especially since often times people must move into the other side of the road to park in reverse.
The lesson is an easy one: we often need uniform rules of conduct to maximize utility. Imagine a flow of traffic where the driver ahead is pausing and reversing to back into the parking space on a busy road. Contrast this with the familiar depiction of a car in front easily gliding into a parking space while the traffic behind decelerates for a second or two. Since everyone is forced to park in the same way, everyone maximizes their individual freedom to travel quickly with minimal interference against the individual.
Of course, many will object to this thought process by considering the parking process as a whole because, while it may be slower to park in reverse, it is just as slow to back out in reverse and perhaps more dangerous because adjacent cars will block the view of oncoming traffic. The counter to that this argument is that, while backing out may be slow, it rarely impedes the flow of traffic compared to backing in; the person backing out tends to consciously avoid preventing the flow of traffic for their own safety while the person backing in realizes the leverage they have in such a position as the limiting reagent of traffic flow with little repercussion to themselves.
Another objective with the same rationale is government action for our benefit, which is enhanced by everyone uniformly parking with headlights facing the curb. While many are downright displeased with parking meter monitors, they serve a valuable duty. Paying for parking regulates the overconsumption of a public good by promoting a higher turnover rate of parking space users and freeing up parking for those with more urgent needs iii. A uniform parking direction allows for parking monitors to more easily look for parking passes in windows, give parking citations, and perform their duties on the safe sidewalk rather than in the road.
In a similar vein, sometimes when people stay in a parking space too long, something needs to be done by the government to discourage future improprieties and allow for more parking in the present. Often this means towing vehicles to punish violators and create more space for paying customers. Unfortunately for people who prefer to back into parking spaces, it is difficult for tow trucks to tow vehicles from the front of the car.
From this, we can conclude that people in traffic and people parking might find rear-end parking to be injurious, but they are not the only receivers of harm. Many public ordinances require vegetation between businesses and parking spaces for many reasons including curbing global and local warming effects, minimizing the dangers of run-off, and simply creating an aesthetic appeal that enhances business in the area when all businesses participate. Rear-end parking is a danger to all of those goals because of the direction of exhaust. It probably comes as common sense that blowing the exhaust from a car directly onto plants and soil is not good for either. Additionally, when the exhaust pipe is facing toward the sidewalk, emissions can move into adjacent buildings, harm nearby structures, and more directly expose pedestrians (especially those at stroller height iv) to higher concentrations of particulate matter and other hazardous pollutants.
Perhaps none of those reasons are satisfying to all people, specifically to the municipalities that actually require rear-end parking, but that’s not the point. The point is that however a municipality decides to regulate parking based on policy considerations and a limited budget for road systems, people like Eugene Mirman, though rightly confused, should ask what the reason behind a regulation is. More often than not, they would find that the rule is actually to their benefit even when it constrains them in the moment. If America is the home of the free then parking regulations are American because, although non-intuitive, when everyone gives up a little freedom they gain more. And freedom is no joke, Eugene. Merica’!!!
Spencer Milton has a J.D. and a B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Georgia. He is a practicing attorney in Georgia and co-founded the Land Use and Planning Organization at the UGA School of Law. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.