A recent change to a car park I use regularly has really bothered my user-centric radar (bear with me on this one!).

Our nearest local amenities from work are in Summertown, just outside North Oxford. It’s a busy main street where you can run quick errands like pop to the bank, grab a sandwich or a birthday card and so on.

Parking is a nightmare, especially at lunchtime, as you’d expect. There’s only one public car park and it’s continuously near capacity.

Until recently something used to spontaneously happen in that car park that was really interesting and I guess happens all over the country.

The entrance is right next to the exit so a car coming in would pass within a foot or so of a car going out.

You would often find people, when leaving and passing someone coming in, reaching out through their open window and offering their ticket, which usually had a good bit of time left on it, to the incoming car.

This is unexpected generosity, a little bit of sunshine, a free ticket!

It wasn’t an agreed behavior. There is likely an element of kitchen sink rebellion, but it felt good giving someone else your ticket and that recipient felt good that someone was kind enough to do so.

So what’s happened?

The local authority has introduced complex and stunningly awful new ticketing booths that force you to input your car registration number before it will issue you with a ticket, so that traffic wardens can link your car to the ticket.

This means people can’t pass tickets with a bit of time left on them to one another any more. No more sunshine.

So now you see people walking to the ticket machines, realising they have to input their registration number, sigh and go back to their car to remind themselves what it is, then walk back to the machine and wrangle with the appaling user interface (I mean, look at all the arrows, buttons and instructions) and then go back to their car to display it.

Courtesy of (the equally annoyed) louisiana

All this effort so the council can claw back the few pence it “felt” it was losing (quantifying the amount of tickets passed altruistically must be almost impossible).

And of course a ticket always guaranteed a space for 1hour – it would just be filled by a different car. The ticket still runs out as normal.

What’s more important: gaining a few quid or keeping the world .001% happier?

(An addendum tale: the council also changed the machines in a car park in the center of Oxford to number plate recognition ticket machines in direct response to complaints about a few homeless folk who used to ask (politely in my experience) for your old ticket so they could sell it on to the next person and make a few quid.

You can’t buy a ticket that hasn’t got your number plate on, right?

But what soon developed, and this always makes me smile at the ingenuity of it, is the homeless guys didn’t go away, they now help car park visitors to understand how to use the awful new machines and people tip them. Brilliant!)

So what does this tell us?

  1. Humans will always find a way to break or workaround a system to help each other if such a way can be found.
  2. How you think a system should work is not always the same as how users work your system.
  3. Changing a system to block natural, spontaneous behavior will only alienate and drive people to work around your block.
  4. Sometimes it shouldn’t just be about the money.