In a ritual as regular as the rise and fall of the tides, tens of thousands of New Yorkers openly break the law every weekday. Unlike drug users, turnstile jumpers, and counterfeit-handbag sellers, these scofflaws operate under the watch of police officials, who uniformly ignore their violations. In neighborhoods all over the city, for hours at a time, lines of cars can be seen double-parked, allowing street cleaners access to the other side of the street. The practice has become so commonplace that many people believe it is legal, but it is not. Yet woe to the traffic cop who ever chose to write tickets for these double-parked cars. There would probably be riots.
The root of the problem is alternate-side parking. For cleaning purposes, almost every street in New York has certain periods of time, usually an hour and a half on specified days of the week, when parking on one side is a violation. In neighborhoods where there is barely enough street parking on both sides, this creates an impossible situation. There is literally no place for these thousands of cars to go. This is a unique dilemma in which the city government is making a legitimate demand (the streets have to be cleaned) but can offer no accommodation for the practical consequences of its mandate.
In a sense, the daily double-parking practices of New Yorkers represent a kind of civil disobedience, but in another way they represent the ability of people, even in dense, urban environments, to govern themselves. There are rules associated with this. Many people, myself included, leave their cell-phone number on their dashboard, in case the person who is parked in needs to move. Some neighbors give each other copies of car keys. In a Seinfeld episode, there is a character who is paid by residents to move all the cars on the block, a complicated job, as George Costanza finds out when he tries to do it and fails miserably.
It is unclear on whose authority this passivity by traffic cops is condoned. Clearly, somebody at a high level of government is dictating it, but who that is, and how the message gets down to the ticket writers, is a mystery. The city, of course, pays a price for its inaction: Millions of dollars of traffic-violation revenue are left on the table. But it apparently has been decided that this price is worth the order that double parking brings to maintaining the streets.
The broad lesson here is that government does not need to solve all of society’s problems, even the ones it creates. Communities can understand their own needs and operate accordingly. On the highly trafficked streets of the Upper West Side, for example, people sit in their double-parked cars, reading the paper, waiting for the street sweeper to pass before reclaiming their prized parking spots. In the less automobile-dense borough of Brooklyn, the cars are simply left empty. These subtle differences explain why city government probably couldn’t regulate double parking even if it wanted to.
The debate between Left and Right in this country is often framed as one of the government solving problems versus self-reliance. But there is a middle ground. Sometimes members of communities need to rely on each other, work out their own customs and practices, and arrive at solutions uniquely suited to their specific environments. For decades now, New Yorkers have been sorting out the alternate-side-parking issue on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood, even block-by-block, basis. The effectiveness of the double-parking work-around should remind us that citizens do not always require regulation. Allowing communities to solve their own problems by refusing to require one-size-fits-all approaches benefits everyone.
Surely there are areas where the state must flex its muscle and use its power of coercion. But it is a brute and clumsy instrument. When the people on as local a level as possible can set their own rules, better, more efficient practices come into being. The daily dance of vehicles on Gotham’s streets is not just an elegant solution to a very real problem; it is a reminder that we, as citizens, do not always need the state to tell us what to do.
— David Marcus is a senior contributor to The Federalist.