Why Do People Park Next to You in an Empty Carpark?

The curious parking choice phenomenon.

Posted Dec 15, 2020

At the end of a year captured by the coronavirus pandemic, some light reading is a welcome break for many people who are curious about psychology during the Christmas festive season. Let’s consider the fascinating phenomenon of why people park their cars near you in an empty car park (or so it seems).

Have you ever driven to the supermarket, shopping centre, or a busy city centre carpark relishing the plan of finding a quiet part of the carpark with no one else parked around? Your parking techniques are great but perhaps you want enough space to load your shopping when you get back or prefer the longer walk.

Before you know it, have you found that someone else has driven up and parked right next to you? Not a space away or a few metres away, but right next to you. And you notice that this happens a lot — everywhere, actually. You find the perfect parking spot far away from the mall and not exactly convenient for people to park at but people start parking up next to you. Does that seem to happen often?

There are fascinating psychological phenomena observable in many parking lots. In countries or cities with high levels of congestion, quiet carparks are symbolic of rural or suburban bliss, and therefore finding an empty parking space (or, at best, one without spaces around) is an interesting sport. It is also a fascinating place to observe social psychology at work. You might wonder whether other people worried that their cars will get lonely in the carpark, whether the phenomenon is real or a type of selective perception bias?

Find out why parking behaviour is a curious and fascinating example of human habits and norms.

1. Is your car red or brightly coloured? In the days before advanced speed camera technology, research [1] found that red, brown, and grey cars were more likely than other cars to get a speeding ticket. The research found that this was not because people estimated the velocity of brightly coloured cars to be higher but suggested that such cars attract more attention.

This suggests that, if you have a red-coloured car (or certain other colours), it might be why people keep parking next to you. They might be simply drawn to your vehicle when they are searching for a parking space. That does not explain why they then park right next to you instead of in any other empty space around the next quarter of a kilometre, but it’s a start.

2. Is the parking space someone else’s “inside tip?” Up to 39% of people tend to park in the same place every time they visit the same location [2]. Research found that one of the strategies that people use to find a parking space is driving straight to their favourite spot because experience has taught them that it is likely to be empty. The researchers called that an “inside tip”[2]. In complex carparks with multiple levels or different sections hidden by hedges or high walls, this might explain why your preferred parking spot is also someone else’s “insider’s tip” for the best area to park.

3. Is the parking space conveniently located? This is the easiest explanation but not necessarily the right one because only 18-26% of people tend to make parking decisions based on where is closest to their destination [2]. Some people tend to park close to the building they are visiting and they might also park close to something convenient like a sheltered walkway in rainy weather or a parking meter, but that does not explain the majority of parking decisions. This leaves room for the possibility that people really do park next to other vehicles for a variety of reasons that are fascinating to psychologists.

4. Are they following other cars? Eighteen percent of people don’t know where they will park — they tend to arrive at the destination and then drive around, increasing congestion [2]. This means that finding an empty parking space is more likely if you avoid following everyone else. Look at where people tend to queue.

For example, if people tend to drive into the carpark and keep driving (avoiding the first turn left or right because they imagine it is full-up), try taking that first left or right turn and you might find an empty parking space. If everyone else carries on following everyone else but you don’t conform, your car might enjoy some space around it while you shop. The same idea seems to apply in train carriages — people seem to imagine that the first carriage is full up and walk down the platform so avoid doing that by going to the first carriage.

5. Are other car owners socially oriented? It is plausible that people tend to park next to other people’s cars because they like the idea of social cohesion in public, or they might associate social cohesion with safety. They might think that parking next to another car reduces their car’s chances of being broken into or crashed against. It might explain why people tend to sit next to other people in parks, trains, and places where there is ample space.

6. Does your car fit within a positive stereotype? Perhaps you drive a car that other people stereotype as being driven by someone polite and considerate. Maybe your car looks clean and well maintained therefore people imagine that parking next to it is a safer bet than parking next to a car that looks unwashed or damaged. They might stereotype the owners of poorly maintained cars as more likely to ding their cars while opening their car door or swish the mirror when walking past. Those are all stereotypes, of course, but can explain some parking choice decisions.

7. Are other people conforming to you? Every psychologist knows how common conformity is, and that people can be influenced even in circumstances where they are not following the majority. Someone else might drive into the car park and think that your idea of parking somewhere empty is a great one, therefore conforming to you in the sense of staying away from the crowd.

If you are curious about the parking choice phenomenon, people tend to park the way they do because of habit, convenience, or social psychology.  

References

[1] Newman, M. C., & Willis, F. N. (1993). Bright cars and speeding tickets. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 23(1), 79-83. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1559-1816.1993.tb01005.

[2] Polak, J., & Axhausen, K. W. (1990). Parking search behaviour: A review of current research and future prospects. University of Oxford, Transport Studies Unit. http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.622.6739&rep=rep1&type=pdf