Parked cars: a challenge for cyclists

Dealing with parked cars can be one of the great challenges of urban cycling.

The most obvious danger is, of course, dooring - when someone doesn't look before opening a door into the path of a passing cyclist.  

But even when they are unoccupied, cars parked on the road can be tricky to navigate.

I thought about this last week while riding along one of my regular routes – a two-lane suburban conduit with a 50km/h speed limit. Let me set the scene:

I'm riding in the left-hand lane so that cars can go past on the right. Up ahead, however, a parked car is blocking the lane. I have to move into the right lane to get around it – but this is trickier than a similar manoeuvre in a car, because even though I'm doing about 30km/h, there's still a fair speed differential between me and the cars approaching from behind.

I look over my shoulder, wait for a gap, give a hand signal, and move into the right hand lane, grateful that a driver has let me in.

OK, I'm now past the parked car, but looking ahead, I notice there's another parked in the left lane a short distance ahead. I weigh my choices.

I can stay in the right lane until I've passed the next parked car, at the risk of annoying the drivers behind me – "why isn't he getting over to the left?"

Or, I can move back into the left lane to allow one or two cars to get past; however, I'll almost immediately have to get into the right lane again, counting on another driver to let me in, while hoping it's not the type of person who will be fixated on getting past me no matter what it takes.

It's often a tough decision, made while mentally processing a time-and-motion physics problem. There's a temptation to avoid conflict by skimming past the parked car; but then you risk being doored, flung into the road and possibly hit by a following vehicle – causing a far greater obstruction for everyone.

And the fun part is that normally, within a hundred metres or so, we'll all be stopped by the same traffic light. 

There can be upsides. Sometimes, cars in the left lane are parked sporadically enough to provide you with a virtual bike lane, as drivers stay on the right to avoid repeated obstructions. Often, it's all about density and timing.

On-street parking is one of the stranger features of the transport world. We build roads to travel on, then clog them up with stationary vehicles. 

It wasn't always this way – historic pictures reveal a time when cars were rare and roads were mostly open spaces. 

But slowly, and by stealth, parked cars have colonised our public thoroughfares, with atherosclerotic results. As business journalist Alan Kohler recently wrote: "I'd go so far as to say most of the national infrastructure budget on roads and public transport is being spent to make up for the failure of weak-kneed politicians to force parked cars off the roads."

As Kohler points out, clearways are an obvious solution – but are fiercely resisted outside weekday peak hours. I find it even more curious that a bicycle travelling in a left-hand lane is seen by many as an annoying obstruction, while a parked car entirely blocking the lane and causing a bottleneck is considered acceptable.

Road lanes can also become literal used-car lots. On weekends, sections of the bus lane on Pittwater Road, on Sydney's northern beaches – a popular route for cyclists -  are lined with dozens of vehicles displaying "for sale" information in their windows. 

It's not just cars – what about boats and trailers? Even when occupying parking spaces, they often jut out into roadways and bike lanes, obstructing passage and sightlines.

Last year a woman was fatally struck by a car while cycling around a boat in Randwick. The  NSW government is reportedly planning to crack down on marooned boats – if you call having to move the vessel every three months a "crackdown". 

Are there any solutions to on-street parking? It seems unlikely anything will change soon. People need places to put their cars, and I speak as one who knows – until I got rid of it a few years ago, I parked a car on my street for half a decade.

But that wasn't in a traffic lane. The real conflicts emerge when travel capacity is reduced by parking.

On the flipside, it can be an indication that a lane can used to benefit a greater number of people – such as cyclists. On Melbourne's Beach Road, a weekend clearway from 6am to 10am, instituted some years ago, makes things easier for the many thousands of cyclists who use the road – and motorists, too. 

Riders travelling in two-abreast bunches are more compact and easier to overtake than long lines of single riders – but, as I noted on a recent ride in Sydney's south, navigating around occasional parked cars can be harder in a group. A strong argument could be made for early morning parking clearways on other popular cycling routes.

As always, safe behaviour and mutual consideration is the key. If you're having to navigate around parked cars, indicate your intentions and be deliberate in your movements. And above all, stay well clear of the door zone of death

Do you find parked cars a challenge when cycling? Are there places where you feel parking regulations should be changed?

To encourage constructive debate, this blog will be carefully moderated; please stay on topic.

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