Illegal parking is a major nuisance in urban environments. It leads to reduced traffic speeds, congestion, changes in travel modes, loss of revenue from valid parking spaces, decline in respect for the law and even to accidents1.

Illegally parked drivers run the risk of having their cars towed or, as it has been happening in private parking lots in some Canadian cities2, being clamped with a ‘Denver Boot’ and having to pay steep fines to recover the use of their car.

Parking psychology

So, what makes a driver decide he or she can park somewhere even though it’s forbidden?

Obviously, convenience and not having to pay must be powerful incentives, but let’s dig a little bit deeper into parking psychology. According to a study on the subject3, a driver’s behaviour is determined by a combination of four factors: attitude, intention, situation and habit.

A driver can have a well thought-out attitude towards a particular parking system, such as parking garages, or a particular parking garage, maybe based on safety preoccupations or location reasons. In some instances, situational factors (the weather, the traffic volume) that may influence a parking choice will intervene. Trip characteristics (destination, number and type of passengers) will also impact the decision-making process. Finally, some decisions are simply based on habits, a process more or less automatic that needs little attention in its execution, depending on the degree to which the decision is thought out, familiarity with the parking location, and convenience.

One of the main factors is likely to be travel goal. Whether our driver is travelling for business or personal reasons, such as an afternoon of shopping, price and proximity will be play a role. For the driver late for an important business meeting, proximity will be of the utmost importance and price, not so much. Conversely, the shopper won’t mind walking a bit, but free parking will be a nearly absolute pre-requisite.

Foraging for free parking

Parking expert Donald Shoup thinks that “most drivers seem to think that charging for parking on a residential street is like charging children to play in a public park”.4 For another scholar, people expect parking to be free of charge “because they fail to understand that parking is a cost of doing business5.”

Or, as Andrew Velkey a psychologist from Christopher Newport University, explains it, drivers hunt for free parking “the way animals hunt for food [and it’s] not as different as you might think. Many scientists believe that animals’ foraging habits can be explained by a model known as “optimal foraging” –  animals seek to gather the most food with the least effort (thus leaving them with more time and energy to, say, reproduce). These strategies evolve in response to the myriad numbers of life-or-death decisions that are made in each successive generation….6

“Optimal foraging” behavior may explain why many drivers are always looking for the best parking option, for free, without having to walk half a block… And the best option may happen to be in an illegal spot.

So, there you have it: people become parking offenders because it’s a throwback to their animal instincts!

On a more mundane level though, most offenders behave that way because of one very simple reason: they’ve gotten away with it in the past, so they’re gambling that this could continue. “People are just willing to take the risk”, says Todd Sullivan, Enforcement Support Coordinator at Calgary Parking Authority. Other compliance and parking enforcement officers interviewed for this article concur. Randy Berg, Supervisor of By-law Compliance, Security and Licensing for the City of Guelph describes it as “the attitude of ‘I can get away with it, I’ve parked here without paying many times before so I should be able to get away without paying again’.”

It’s the same observation in the private parking business: “Generally, says Brad Babcock, Regional Manager, Southern Alberta for Indigo, “we see shorter term parkers as the ones who try to get in and out without paying and without receiving a parking infraction. I suppose it’s the “I’m only going to be 15-20 minutes” thinking that some people have that justifies why they choose to not pay for parking. But, it’s a small percentage that have this approach as most pay for their parking”.

Also, as Todd Sullivan points out, “there are some people who genuinely don’t understand how it works, particularly visitors to the city”. Ryan Arabsky, Manager Regulations and Compliance at Winnipeg Parking Authority calls it a “lack of understanding of the parking bylaws”.

In all fairness, some cities can be perplexing places in which to park, with contradictory parking signs piling up on one pole.

Whatever the reason, parking contraveners remain a nuisance, disturbing traffic flow, denying other drivers access to parking they may be entitled to (like handicapped parking) and depriving business and cities of revenues.

Thus, the need for enforcement.

Enforcement measures: the return of the Denver Boot

The objective of most parking enforcement services being to promptly remove parked vehicles found to be obstructing traffic, towing and impounding are their preferred way to deal with the issue.

But for some private parking owners, there is a far more efficient method of cracking down on illegally parked cars than the standard practice of issuing tickets and having vehicles towed to impound lots.

Enters the infamous Denver Boot, the device designed to prevent vehicles from being moved. Originally known as the auto immobiliser, the Denver Boot was invented in 1944 and patented in 1958 by Frank Marugg. According to Wikipedia7, Frank Marugg was “a pattern maker and a violinist with the Denver Symphony Orchestra” who was also friend with many Denver politicians and police department officials and was asked to come up with an idea on how to immobilize a vehicle.

A company, RFM Parking, has been using the Denver Boot as a tool of parking enforcement for private parking lots in Canada. It currently does business in Atlantic Canada, Alberta and British Columbia. RFM patrols private parking lots and puts Denver Boots on vehicles parked without authorization. The company will not remove the boot until a $300 fine is paid.

The CBC News Edmonton website reports8 that use of the Denver Boot by private companies such as RFM is growing as they expand in Canada, even though it’s legality is being challenged. The Edmonton Police Service, for instance, has determined that putting boots on vehicles is a crime and have arrested the partners that own the company and charged them with fraud, mischief and extortion (all the charges were later dropped).

For its part, RFM maintains that their activities are legal because the lots they patrol are private property and parking in them is like entering into a legal contract to abide by the rules. “If there’s a sign in a parking lot, it’s your job to read the sign.”

Like Carole Whitehorne, executive director of the Canadian Parking Association told the CBC News reporter, “It’s an aggressive way to get someone’s attention, but in some cases it’s the most economical and simplest way to encourage compliance.”

Obstructing as a new compliance tool

Having a boot clamped on the wheel of your car will surely get your attention and it is less of an inconvenience than having to find where your car was impounded and getting there – without a car…

But you may still have to wait hours for someone to come and remove it. So, another contraption for parking enforcement by immobilising a vehicle has been invented: The Barnacle, a six-square foot block of yellow plastic splayed across the windshield, rendering it impossible to see a thing. The Barnacle is a gentler version of the boot because you may make a payment over the phone in exchange for the code needed to release the thing (you then have 24 hours to return it to its owner)9.

Let’s give the last word to Donald Shoup, whose book, “The High Cost of Free Parking,” is considered by many the definitive text on the subject: “ We grow up thinking that somebody else should pay for parking. The cost doesn’t go away just because the driver doesn’t pay for it10.”

  1. Kevin Cullinane  & John Polak, Transport Reviews, 13 Mar 2007, Illegal parking and the enforcement of parking regulations: causes, effects and interactions. Online: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01441649208716803
  2. CBC News Edmonton, 11 April, 2017, Edmonton parking enforcement firm waging battle with police over use of Denver Boot. Online: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/denver-boot-legal-1.4061275
  3. eComm 2004, The Psychology of Parking: http://www.epomm.eu/ecomm2004/workshops/anglais/GriffioenJanssen.pdf
  4. SHOUP, Donald, Fall 2016, The Access Almanac: Parking Benefit Districts. http://www.accessmagazine.org/fall-2016/the-access-almanac-parking-benefit-districts/
  5. ROBERTSON, Kent, The Psychology of Downtown Parking. Online: https://goo.gl/95IYdT
  6. Whet Moser, Chicago Reader, Parking Meters and the Psychology of Driving. Online: https://www.chicagoreader.com/Bleader/archives/2010/02/18/parking-meters-and-the-psychology-of-driving
  7. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wheel_clamp
  8. CBC News Edmonton, op cit. 
  9. Wired, 10 June 2016, This New Form of Parking Enforcement Sucks. Like, Actually Sucks. Online : https://www.wired.com/2016/10/parking-enforcement-barnacle-boot/
  10. Los Angeles Times, 15 October 2009, Santa Monica to experiment with parking psychology. Online: http://articles.latimes.com/2009/oct/15/local/me-parking-experiment15
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