The psychology of parking

It has been an emotional political week. Let’s step back, take a breath and talk about something completely different. Today’s column will be a non-partisan topic, and maybe you will even chuckle or smile.

When shopping, do you take the first empty parking space you come to or drive in circles waiting for a spot closest to the store? Do you avoid parallel parking at all costs? In a parking lot, do you go in head first or back your tail in? There’s a lot more to the psychology of parking than many people are aware.

In 1997 or ‘98, there was a four-day course in Albany for newly appointed police chiefs. One of the morning elective classes was “The Psychology of Parking”. Being a new police chief in a town with scores of hated parking meters along with a very “parking active” Business Improvement District (BID) made this seem like the perfect period of instruction for me.

The material learned back then was spot-on for downtown Norwich of that time and is still relevant to this day for a small town, big city or shopping mall.

Studies show (yes, someone studied this topic) those of you who drive around city blocks or circle the parking lots, waiting for an open space close to your destination waste more time than if you had parked in the first available space and walked to your target door.



Backing into a parking space isn’t just for volunteer firefighters, it’s better for all of us. While it may seem quicker to pull head-first into a parking space, it’s actually safer to take the time to back in, and when finished, to drive out with a better perspective of your surroundings. There’s also the delayed gratification for those of you who make the effort to back into a parking space. That great feeling happens when you get back to your car and can just drive away. A bonus; backing into a parking space will get easier this year because rearview cameras are now required on all cars built in the US in 2018 and beyond.

Some parking lot hunters look for the drive-through spot that is like winning the parking space lottery; the two empty end-to-end spaces which permit a vehicle to drive through and park allowing for forward exit – park and depart all in one fell swoop. This is similar to the empty parallel parking space found at the end of a block; a driver only needs to pull past and back into place without all that fancy steering wheel maneuvering.

Another parking quirk is the need for motorists to see their destination from where they park their car. People will think nothing of parking a quarter mile away from an entrance at Syracuse’s Destiny USA because the entrance is in sight, on the distant horizon. It just doesn’t seem all that far away; kind of like the light at the end of the tunnel, as you walk for minutes to get inside.

This line-of-sight parking phenomenon is something I witnessed firsthand a few years ago on a family trip to Skillin’s Jewelers. While waiting for a red traffic light on East Main Street - I was a passenger - we could see no open spaces near the front of Skillin’s. When the light turned green, there were two choices; an empty space to the south beyond Nina’s or my suggested spot on West Main Street along West Park.

My choice would have been the closest space by a great margin. But the operator chose the further space on the same street, within straight line-of-sight of Skillin’s store. For the sake of marital harmony, we should just end the story there.

On-street parking in most community business districts is somehow regulated, either by signs or meters. I’m proud to say myself and Parking Officer JB Stopford were the people who convinced the city council the parking meters were more of a hindrance than an aid to consumer parking and they needed to go away. Somewhere at the Norwich Police station is a thick file of hate-mail directed at the parking officer, his parents, and descendants, because of a one dollar parking ticket he tucked under a windshield wiper.

If you should venture into the west-side parking lots behind the South Broad Street storefronts you will find all kinds of public and private parking regulations; 15 minutes, two-hour and three-hour spaces, fire lane, all day spaces and one oddly placed loading zone only. This is what happens when the BID attempts legislation to please all but only ends up confusing everyone.

One of the most fascinating things learned at this Albany school was the absolute certainty that a man will always look back at his parked vehicle; sometimes immediately, sometimes a few steps distance – but there will always be that backward glance. This reassuring look-back has its roots when a man left his horse tied to a rail in the old west. That horse, like today’s vehicles, was probably a cowboy’s most prized possession. Nowadays that man's look-back in the Price Chopper’s parking lot is usually at his 4X4 pickup truck.

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