A CHERISHED AMERICAN INSTITUTION
Useful information for those unfamiliar with American
This article was originally published in
The Ride Magazine in 1996
by John S. Allen
The Cambridge bike lane installation described in the previous issue of The Ride
has led to calls within the Cambridge Bicycle Committee for a campaign against illegal
parking in the bike lanes. For foreigners, as well as for those among us who, despite
their unremarkable appearance and unaccented speech, hail from other planets, I am
therefore moved to offer a a lesson about illegal parking, a central and cherished
institution of American life.
As often as not, illegally-parked vehicles, as you will notice, are trucks making
deliveries. For example, many of the trucks parked in the bike lane along Mt. Auburn
Street in Cambridge are delivering food to the Harvard dining halls, as has occurred since
the early years of this century when those dining halls were constructed. Since the City
and the University have provided the truckers with no other place to park, guess what?
They park in the bike lane. Typically, their warning flashers are blinking. Actually, the
trucks are technically "standing," (only there for a short errand, with the
driver nearby) rather than parking.
I'll get to how bicyclists deal with this later, but let's look first at the most
troubling quandary posed by illegal parking: the parked-in vehicle. If the driver of a
vehicle that is "parked in" by a double-parker returns and repeatedly honks its
horn with American forthrightness to indicate the desire to drive away, then the driver of
the double-parked vehicle comes running cheerfully and apologetically, or at least
willingly, in a delightful demonstration of civic cooperation, to allow the parked-in
driver to leave. The double-parker, if driving a car, then may park in the vacated parking
space. Since most trucks won't fit into a car-size parking space, a trucker moves back to
the original location to double-park just as before, or if especially considerate, leaves
the empty space available by blocking a different parked vehicle.
In the days before private automobiles were common, truckers, and before them draymen
with horses and wagons, were able to make their deliveries at the curb. Most customers in
business districts arrived on foot, or by bicycle or public transportation. In western
frontier towns, which served a wide geographic area, shoppers arrived on horseback or with
a horse and buggy, as we know from innumerable Western movies, which I am sure are
familiar also to foreigners. Western towns have main streets about 100 feet wide to
accommodate angle-parked horses and wagons. Cambridge, as you may notice, does not.
The advent of shopping by car and the resulting increased demands for parking have
usurped the truckers' historical position at the curb, forcing them one lane farther out
into the street. Now, some Americans seek to punish truckers for what they must
unavoidably do. The need to assign blame and punish is an important element of American
character, never more than in todays political climate, but its a topic for a
Not all double-parkers are truckers. Some are individuals running short errands in
their private cars, who could not find convenient parking spaces. Perhaps these people
deserve more blame than the truckers. On the whole, they have more choices. If driving a
small car and not delivering (for example) a grand piano, 30 crates of fine glassware, 57
tubs of ice cream, or $1,000,000 in unmarked banknotes -- all typical cargoes in our
thriving American economy on the move -- a motorist may find it more practical to drive
around and around the block for twenty minutes until a parking space opens up, and then
walk half a kilometer each way to run his or her errand. [American and Liberian readers:
the kilometer is a standard unit of measurement, used everywhere in the world except in
the United States and Liberia, approximately 0.6214 mile. Those from other planets: it is
2.54 x 10E-12 light year.] The 20-minute delay to find a parking space may, however, be
annoying for an individual who, for example, only wanted to grab a quick cup of coffee
"to go" [foreign readers: "to sip in the car, usually on the way to
Police don't enforce against double parking, because police learn quickly that most
double-parkers have no alternative. Also, the owners of urban businesses would be at least
mildly displeased if they could not receive deliveries (or customers yearning for their
quick cup of coffee). These conclusions have been scientifically verified through numerous
coffee-counter interviews in which personal biases were minimized by the promise of
If the driver of a "parked in" vehicle can not summon the driver of the
double-parked vehicle, then the police do respond, complete with tow truck, a $150 fine
and towing charge, and several hours of wasted time for the unfortunate double parker. But
everyone in America understands this ritual of banishment and atonement, and so people
don't let this happen unless they have suffered some serious misfortune which prevented
them from returning to their vehicles. Visitors to the United States will rarely encounter
trouble due to double parking as long as they are able to return quickly to their vehicle,
particularly if no empty parking space is close enough to provide a convenient alternative
obvious to a police officer.
Double parking, uh, I should say, standing, is annoying to people who have the
rather remarkable idea that they might want to use more of a street for travel, and less
of it as a parking lot. However, these are generally people who are Just Passing
Through, not people who Live or Work in the Neighborhood. This is an
important distinction in American political life.
People who Live in the Neighborhood, and their dinner guests, fill the parking spaces
at night, when the dreaded Meter Maids, excuse me, let me be Politically Correct, Meter
Minders...let me digress:
"Estimable Rita, Meter Minder,
What'd I do without her?
No sugar, no cream
A quick sideglance at my car...."
...uh, where was I...thats right, quick, please, to go, Im double-
Back to our train of thought. In the evening, when business interests become less
compelling, all parking is liberated from what many Americans colorfully describe as
government interference. Rita and her colleagues, like most other people, go home to their
dinner guests and to their free parking spaces in their own neighborhoods. Some of the
people who live in each neighborhood Vote, though Voting is a custom which is becoming
steadily less popular in America. The demographics of the Voting population in urban areas
has been shown in many well-controlled studies to correlate closely with the possession of
free parking privileges.
The People who Work in the Neighborhood may not Vote there, but the businesses that
employ them do Pay Taxes. It is well understood throughout the American business community
that on-street parking is a valuable resource which businesses must keep available for
their customers, even if this results in inconvenience and expense to business owners and
their employees. Therefore, workers in urban retail districts must use expensive
off-street parking, or else travel to their employment by bicycle, on foot, or by public
transportation. The time limit for metered parking, enforced by Rita and her colleagues,
enhances what is technically described as "parking turnover," keeping the
parking available for shoppers. The geographic distribution of Businesses which Pay Taxes,
particularly in the retail trade in urban areas, has been shown to correlate closely with
that of parking meters and their attendant Meter Minders.
All of the forces working to increase parking density meet a countervailing force:
enough of the streets must remain open that parking (or double-parking) is accessible. Let
me therefore postulate Allen's Rule of Parking Equilibrium, which may help foreigners
understand the dynamics of parking in this country:
The available width of a street used for travel reaches an equilibrium with that
used for parking. This follows directly from the observation that if drivers can not
travel to parking spaces, they can not occupy them. The peak density of retail use on
urban streets also depends on this rough but stable equilibrium. If traffic becomes too
tied up due to parking, the walking city becomes a sprawl city; parking spaces replace the
homes, offices and stores, city blocks start to look more and more like a mouth with half
the teeth missing...and retail business moves out to peripheral shopping malls which
spread acres of asphalt across the landscape...but that's another story.
Now, what has this all to do with bike lanes? Simple: The bike lane goes exactly where
truckers double park. This represents a significant unresolved conflict in American life,
at least for the bicycling community. The faith and hope of bike lane advocates is that
the truckers will see the bike lane stripe on the road and will hear and heed the
commandment from the high bastions of transportation reform: "Thou shalt not double
park." And the police will advance on those who do not heed, citation book in hand.
Fat chance, I say.
The truckers may feel a little bit guilty because they don't really like to be an
nuisance even if their union boss was once Jimmy Hoffa [a legendary union leader with
reputed gangster connections]. The bike lane advocates, who have their own particular
vision for what they consider a Better World, will feel angry, and self-righteous. But
here in the real world, the unwritten laws of double-parking, which is such an essential
and unavoidable element of the American social fabric, are not going to change because
bike lane boosters have painted a line down the street.
For American Readers
End of travelogue. Now let me primarily address American readers. Foreign and
extraterrestrial readers may also wish to continue, especially if you, too, confront
similar issues where you live.
Allen's Rule of Parking Equilibrium holds. Please get used to it. What can we do about
Let's not blame the truckers. They didnt make this problem, and theres no
way we can do without truckers (though deliveries can sometimes be consolidated and
delivery times placed outside traffic peak times by good planning). We could also provide
designated loading zones and bus stop pockets and require businesses to have loading
docks. But progress toward these goals will take a long time. The root of the problem is
not the double-parked trucks, which are relatively few and move on after a short time. The
root of the problem is single-parked cars that have pushed the trucks away from the curb.
Those cars belong to People Who Vote and to People Who are Customers of Local Businesses
that Pay Taxes (remember?). Your car. My car. The Great-American-love-affair-with-the-Car.
As American as I am, I, like many others, deplore the excessive number of private cars
used in American urban areas, and our societys neglect of public transportation,
which foreigners often comment about, with their fresh perpective on our country. They
tell me that the worst social problem they see with our excessive dependence on cars is
not accidents, dependence on foreign oil supplies, or illness resulting from air
pollution. It is the sprawl city phenomenon, the vicious upward spiral in car use: the
enormous amount of space that private cars consume, which makes us even more dependent on
cars. I assure my foreign readers that we have many things to learn from you. And for
those from other planets, yes, we would do well to increase our research into space travel
I hope that I have provided some perspective on the parking problem. [Readers from
other planets equipped with teleportation devices need read no further; the following is
of no concern to you. The following advice is intended primarily for bicyclists.
Motorists, too, may find it interesting because it describes how bicyclists interact with
Some practical advice
How are bicyclists to deal with double parking on a daily basis? Crawl under the
double-parked truck, dragging the bicycle behind you, because thats where the bike
lane goes? Uh, no thanks. There was a guy who "rode" his bicycle up Mt. McKinley
in Alaska this past year, but most of us would rather forego such challenges. Go up on the
sidewalk? Uh, no, Rita might have a special ticket for you, at least in Cambridge. And you
might collide with a grand piano or a tub of ice cream. Not a good idea.
Youre just going to have to ride around that double-parked truck, bike lane or no
bike lane. To some degree, you can actually be thankful for double-parking, because it
impedes motorists more than it does bicyclists. Here are some pointers on how pass a
double-parked vehicle safely:
1) Look over your shoulder for traffic and prepare to merge toward the center of the
street well before you reach the truck.
2) If you look over your shoulder and a motor vehicle is just about to pass you, let it
pass. Then stick out your arm to signal to the next driver that you want to merge. This
driver will almost certainly respond to your clear signal by slowing or moving aside. Look
back again to check that it is safe to merge. It is not the hand signal that makes your
merge safe: it is the drivers response to the hand signal. If the driver Hates
Bicyclists and does not respond, let him/her pass. You dont want to deal with
him/her/it anyway. The next driver will almost certainly let you into line. If you give
yourself the opportunity to negotiate with two drivers to let you into line, you will very
3) Merge far enough away from the truck so that you will be clear of its door if it
opens, and clear of a pedestrian who may be crossing in front of the truck. 3 feet is
enough clearance with a small van. 5 feet is more like it with a 10-ton delivery truck, an
18-wheeler or a bus. If that means you are riding in the middle of the next lane, so be
it. The danger is the truck next to you, not the car behind you: the driver behind you who
has slowed to follow you protects you from other vehicles farther back in line. You have a
legal right to the street space you need for your safety.
4) If the truck unexpectedly starts moving and merges out into the street toward you
while you are next to it, well, thats another very good reason to keep your distance
from its side. Unless you have nearly reached the front of the truck and can clear it
safely, slow down and drop back, then merge back to your normal lane position.
5) After you clear the front of the truck, merge back toward the curb after
first glancing back to check that the truck has not started to move forward. It is more
likely for a bus to start moving as you pass it, as buses stop only for a short time. If
the bus or truck starts to move, dont cross in front of it. Stick out your right
arm to indicate that you want to merge, and once the driver slows to let you, then
move back to your normal lane position. (Yes, your right arm for a right turn
signal. The "Boy Scout Salute" left-handed right turn signal is too confusing.)
And finally, if you would rather have the bus discharge its passengers while you
patiently wait behind it in a cloud of diesel smoke, feel free to do so. But don't ask me
to do this too. I dont have enough time or enough lung tissue to spare. We had
enough trouble in this country once because some of our citizens were being required to
ride in the back of the bus. If you want all bicyclists to wait behind the bus, go live in
Denmark, where the laws and bike lane design mandate this. There, the buses stop outside
the bike lane and the bicyclists patiently and thankfully stop and wait until all the bus
passengers have crossed the bike lane. At the risk of offending my foreign readers, I must
say that I sometimes think that Denmark is on another planet. Readers who are Danes may
take this as they please. I'm a great fan of Victor Borge, but there's no rule saying I
have to like everything about your country -- or you about mine.
A bicyclist who learns to ride around trucks and buses with safety and confidence --
and it can be done -- I do it every day -- has mastered what is generally considered the
greatest challenge of riding in urban traffic. Challenge? Big deal, I say. Go try it.
Don't wait for bike lanes to solve the problem, because they won't. Don't wail about
double- parking, and don't sit in a cloud of diesel smoke. Just practice passing trucks as
I've described, and do it.
Thank you for your attention. I hope this has been a useful lesson on American life.
The floor is now open for comments and questions.
John Allen has been described as a curmudgeon and rides in greater Boston.