trakbi2s.gif (1391 bytes)

Top: home page
Up:  bicycle facilities

Contact John S. Allen

trakbils.gif (1395 bytes)


Useful information for those unfamiliar with American customs

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 today’s political climate, but it’s a topic for a different essay.

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 work"].

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 anonymity.

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...that’s right, quick, please, to go, I’m double- parked...

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 it?

Let's not blame the truckers. They didn’t make this problem, and there’s 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 society’s 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 as well.

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 you.]

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 that’s 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.

You’re 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 driver’s response to the hand signal. If the driver Hates Bicyclists and does not respond, let him/her pass. You don’t 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 rarely fail.

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, that’s 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, don’t 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 don’t 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.

Top: home page
Up:  bicycle facilities

Contact John S. Allen

Contents 1996, 2001, John S. Allen
Last modified 26 May 2005