Car parking: a significant barrier to improving cycling?

This article was published in 2008, in Newsletter 77.

Gilbert Road is just one of many areas where on-street car parking creates unpleasant and unsafe conditions for cyclists.
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I wish to present a hypothesis to provoke discussion: that public car parking represents one of the most significant barriers to improving cycling. Problems arise in two key areas:

  • Car parking on key strategic roads like the ring road, or streets like Gilbert Road, results in cyclists having to veer out into the traffic, which is unpleasant and unsafe. This is a major deterrent to increasing cycling.
  • High levels of car parking in residential areas like Romsey result in no space for cycle parking or two-way cycling, and space is sometimes even taken from pedestrian pavements.

There is, of course, a valid need for car parking, and the vast majority of members of the Campaign own cars, according to our own survey of members a few years ago. But the question is where the balance should lie between the current domination of space by cars and the opportunity for other road users to make use of the space instead.

Car parking on strategic roads

It seems ludicrous that key strategic roads in the city, where the free flow of traffic is of paramount importance, sometimes have allocated car parking spaces in even the most congested spots.

Key areas that we have focussed on in the past are the inner ring road, such as East Road and Lensfield Road, and places like Gilbert Road and outside the Botanic Gardens.

Compare the difficulty of cycling in these locations because of the need to dodge parked vehicles, with the relative ease of cycling on Huntingdon Road or Hills Road, for instance.

In these and many other problem areas, either:

  1. people have to be sufficiently fast and confident to cycle in the middle of the traffic stream; or
  2. people have to cycle too close to vehicles, resulting in the risk of being ‘doored’ by a car door opening; or
  3. people are put off from cycling altogether.

It is clear that the source of the problem is the car parking, and the only real way to solve these problems is removing the car parking. Pushing cyclists onto the pavement would certainly not be a solution.

Residential areas

The levels of car parking in places like Romsey, the sort of area ideally suited for many to adopt car-free living, comes at the price of making the area unpleasant for walking and cycling. People end up having to walk in the road, and two-way cycling is frowned upon, a crazy state of affairs. In Romsey, cyclists and particularly pedestrians are treated as the lowest of the low.

In Romsey, cyclists and particularly pedestrians are treated as the lowest of the low.

Small but selective spot reductions, year by year, would gradually free up space for cycle parking and pedestrians, without causing too much difficulty for existing residents. People would think more carefully about car ownership when moving into the area. But this would need cross-party support and leadership.

The City Council send out their Rangers to clear the pavements of black bins. Where is the same passion by councillors to get cars (and bikes!) off the pavements too?

Cycle parking in residential areas

Ring-road car parking makes cycling very difficult, and causes delays.
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At meeting after meeting of the Transport Area Joint Committee (AJC), debates about car parking in residential areas take place, with residents and Councillors vociferous about ensuring that car parking is never reduced. The “right” to have a car parking space directly outside one’s front door seems never to be questioned, even in places like Gilbert Road where cycling conditions are terrible and dangerous yet virtually every house has its own parking. (Huntingdon Road is an almost identical situation, yet people seem to cope there.)

Yet where is the same passion about providing cycle parking? Few Councillors seem interested, and even the most environmentally-minded Councillors have failed to push for cycle parking to be routine throughout Cambridge. This seems nothing short of discrimination.

An ideal way of providing public cycle parking is as demonstrated outside St Catharine’s College – which came at the loss of only a small number of car parking spaces. In residential areas, however, spaces need to be covered, as is common on the Continent. Car clubs, if they take off, could help facilitate freeing up space for cycle parking.

Home Zones: rethinking the urban environment

“For much of the twentieth century, streets were designed by engineers who were charged only with ensuring traffic flow, but it has become apparent that streets have many social and recreational functions which are severely impaired by fast car traffic. The living street is an attempt to design for all the functions of streets.”


A Home Zone is a residential area where no mode of transport has priority over any other and motor vehicle speeds are managed so that they do not, under normal conditions, exceed 10 mph. Keeping speeds naturally low results in the area becoming a ‘place’ for living rather than as a conduit for cars. The amount of car parking is also lower, reflecting the desire for a more people-friendly environment where children can safely play, for instance. Over 6500 such Home Zones have been introduced in the Netherlands since the 1960s, and so it is disappointing that the UK has barely started, 40 years later.

A few years ago, councillors, to their credit, unanimously supported the creation of a Home Zone proposed by developers of the former Simoco site in East Chesterton, though we have heard nothing more of the idea since.

The cycle racks outside St Catharine’s College came at the loss of only a small number of car parking spaces.
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Even without formal designation of a street as a Home Zone, the most recent planning guidance for new developments, specifically the Manual For Streets, and the Cambridgeshire Design Guide, includes many of the same principles of slower speeds and good cycle permeability. The problems in the existing areas will remain, however.

Car parking already a means of managing roadspace demand

In London, the lack of car parking is a key contributory factor to relatively low levels of car usage. Together with reasonably accessible public transport and the congestion charge, people will not drive in for the simple reason that there is often nowhere to park, or that they will pay high car parking charges.

Spot reductions in car parking are needed gradually over 10 years to reduce parking in dense, terraced areas to more appropriate levels.

Of course, in Cambridge, there is more space available than in highly dense London, but this same principle does already apply: car parking charges are already used as a form of demand management.

With the possibility of a congestion charge, and the ever-increasing need to manage traffic in the city, councillors need to think ever-more seriously about making space for cycling and walking on our streets, at the expense of the widespread car parking that currently exists.

Martin Lucas-Smith