How We Beat the Boot

Reprinted without permission from the Thistle, December 8, 1993
[who got it from some unidentified San Francisco alternative paper]

Parking boots are public property.

The parking-control officers who attach them to your wheels intend for them to stay there until you've paid off your fines. Removing the boot without authorization, or damaging it in any way, is a crime.

Nevertheless, in cities like Denver and Boston, where the boot has been a part of life for years, the contraptions occasionally disappear. In some cities, more than 10 percent of the boot stock has vanished or been rendered inoperable.

That came as no surprise to the mechanical experts who examined our boot. The boot, they say, is nowhere near as tough as it looks. Anyone with less than $30 worth of basic hand tools and enough dexterity to screw in a light bulb can probably break the boot's grip on a car wheel in about ten minutes.

The boot is designed to intimidate, our experts say; its toughest parts are the ones that would be the most obvious targets for boot-busting vandals -- the lock mechanism, for example. With a special tamper-resistant padlock surrounded by a box made of quarter-inch carbon steel plates, the lock will stand up to just about anything short of a low-yield nuclear device. So our bootbusters ignored the lock and looked for other less-obvious places where the boot could be attacked. It took them no time to discover several major weak points in the boot's protective armor.

Deflating the tire.

If the boot is going to work properly, it must be properly installed, and that's not an easy process -- especially in the dark, when you have a long night of boot-installing ahead. If the installation is even a bit sloppy (that is, if the jaws that attach the boot to the wheel are a little bit loose), it's often possible to remove the boot by letting the air out of the tire and simply sliding the whole thing off.

This is by far the simplest strategy. It doesn't always work -- conscientious installer can prevent it almost every time, and some car wheels don't leave enough room for the process anyway. But veterans of boot-happy cities have told us they've removed dozens of boots this way, quickly, quietly, and easily.

The hubcap plate.

A key element to the boot's effectiveness is its ability to prevent car-owners from getting access to the lug nuts on the booted wheel. Once the lug nuts are accessible, the wheel can be removed and replaced with a spare tire, and the car can be driven away.

If the boot is properly installed, the plate will be tightly secured over the hubcaps, making it impossible event to imagine loosening the lug nuts. But the plate is one of the more flimsy parts of the boot; it's attached by a half-inch swivel pin that is spot-welded to the frame. As our boot-busting experts explained, spot welds that hold together two pieces of metal of different thicknesses are inherently weak. There are several such welds on the boot, and this one is especially vulnerable.

With a common battery-powered drill and a 15-cent grinding wheel or "cut-off tool", one of our experts was able to grind away most of the weld on the pin in about two minutes. With a five-dollar cold chisel and a standard hammer, he did the same job even faster.

Once the weld is broken, a quick blow with a hammer forced the pin out, releasing the plate from the boot frame and making it easy to change the tire and drive away, leaving the old, boot-laden tire behind (or safely stowed in the trunk as a souvenir).

The jaw-to-frame pins.

The main frame of the boot -- the "arm" -- fit into a pair of metal pins on the wheel-clamp, or "jaw". The pins are a central element of the boot's structure. They're also one of its weakest links.

The pins are only about an inch long. when the boot is installed, they appear to be connected to each other through some sort of thick, central rod. In fact, they're just stuck into holes drilled in the frame, and spot-welded at the bottom.

Even when the boot is assembled, there's plenty of free play between the arm and the pins. A few strong, sharp blows with a hammer on the top of the pins quickly breaks them free and makes them easy to remove. With those pins gone, the boot comes apart immediately.

The welds holding the lock-box to the frame. For all the effort that the bootmakers put into developing an impregnable locking mechanism, it's amazing how loosely the lock-box is attached to the rest of the boot. Four flimsy spot-welds hold the entire padlock-and-cover-plate assembly to the main boot frame. It took an expert just a few seconds to chip away one of the welds with a chisel and hammer; when one of our spastic, incompetent, weak-wristed editors tried it on a second weld a few days later, it took less than a minute.

Once the lock-box is liberated from the frame, the entire boot can be dismantled and removed quickly with a ratchet and standard (16-inch) spark-plug socket.

The arm itself.

If all else fails, our experts discovered that they could actually cut through the tough-looking steel of the main arm with a battery-powered drill and a cut-off tool. forget the oxyacetylene torches and the nitric acid -- the boot arm cuts like butter with a cheap hobbyist's tool. By our calculations, a standard drill-and-cut-off tool set-up can cut through the main arm in less than ten minutes.

The padlock keys.

When the parking-control officers come to remove a boot, the first thing they have to do is unlock the padlock. Since the city is buying about 100 of the monsters, it seems highly unlikely that every boot will have a different key. In other cities, like Denver, a single master key unlocks them all.

That means, of course, that an anarchist thug with a penchant for trouble-making (or a wily hustler with an eye for a quick profit) could easily dismantle and remove the boot from some poor innocent scofflaw's illegally parked car, take the thing home, bust the lock off and pay a less-than-scrupulous locksmith to make up a new key -- a key that would instantly unlock every boot in the city.

Of course, the city can always change all the padlocks on a regular basis (although they don't come cheap). But if we know this city, the pirates will soon be making and selling the keys faster than the cops can replace the locks, forcing the taxpayers to pour ever-increasing sums of money into a parking-law-enforcement mechanism that is neither appropriate nor effective for San Francisco.