Parallel Parking Tips

So, you don't have any cavities? Good! Then it's time to learn how to parallel park the British way.

Studies by Transportation Alternatives have shown that 15%-45% of drivers in Manhattan are trolling for parking, and observation suggests that a lot of those drivers pass up spots that they could fit in—just because they lack parallel parking skills.

Manhattan has miles of unmetered street-parking, which provides an incentive to drive a small car—larger cars can only fit in the largest spots that appear. When I owned a smart fortwo, it was a doddle to park quickly—I never had to look for more than three blocks to find a spot. Drivers of longer cars can spend more than an hour looking for on-street parking.

Driver skill is the other, more easily improvable factor that determines what spots a car can squeeze into. Sadly, New York’s New Driver Study Guide provides precious little instruction on the science behind parallel parking, offering little more than “plenty of practice is the only way to improve,” and a lengthy version of the old “crank it all the way to the right, then all the way to the left” method. In contrast, England’s driver training programs explain the process as a straightforward, formulaic routine, and in minutes had me consistently parallel parking in tight spaces. Just what was I taught about parallel parking during my several £50/hour driving lessons in the UK? The first thing was to look all around the car. Eye the space as you drive up to it. Before reversing, look over both shoulders, in both mirrors, and through the windshield of your car. And remember that the front of your car swings out into the road when you’re parking. If everything looks good, then it’s on to the magic formula. We’ll leave the reader with the trivial task of figuring out which way to turn the wheel.

1. Drive alongside the car in front of the space—and leave two feet of space between the cars—until your rear bumpers are even.

Step 1.

2. Turn the steering wheel one complete revolution toward the space. Reverse until your nearside mirror is level with the rear bumper of the other car.

Step 2.

3. Straighten the wheel and reverse until your front bumper is level with the rear bumper of the other car.

Step 3.

4. Turn the wheel one turn away from the space and reverse until your car is parallel in the spot.

Step 4.

That technique will work for many of the spots that give people pause in Manhattan. When confronted with a tighter spot with less than 2-3’ of extra space, parking becomes less formulaic and a bit more strategic.

Parallel parking depends primarily on getting the rear wheels where you want them—there is no way to move the back of the car left or right without pulling out and back in again. But in very tight spaces, you can’t place both the front and the rear of the car in a single S-shaped maneuver. Pull up alongside the car in-front, look through the rear windscreen and begin reversing, turning the wheel to aim your license plate just curbside of the center of the front bumper of the car that’s behind you (your car wont hit the curb because it’s trajectory will change as the car swings in), and begin thinking about the nose of your car even before it clears the rear bumper of the car in front. Ideally, you’ll have your car on full-lock before you clear the rear bumper, and just barely miss the car in front with your nose. You’ll run out of space before the front wheels are next to the curb—and so it is necessary to “walk” the front of your car into place (steer toward the curb and creep forward, then steer away and inch backward). This is the only time (ever) that it can be necessary to turn the front wheels when the car is stationary. To summarize:

1. Pull up just alongside the car in front, leaving 2 feet of space, until your rear bumper is about a foot ahead of the other car’s rear bumper.

2. Turn the steering wheel one complete revolution and reverse, then adjust the steering to aim your rear bumper just curbside of squarely at the front bumper of the car behind yours.

3. Straighten the wheel and reverse, adjusting the wheel until your front bumper is nearly touching—and level with—the rear bumper of the other car.

4. Turn the wheel hard (even all the way) and reverse until your car is as close as possible to the car behind you. Then “walk” the front of your car into the spot by steering toward the curb and inching toward the car in front, turning the other way and creeping toward the car behind you, etc…

There are a few other secrets to impressive parallel parking. If you can find your reflection in a glass storefront it will help you with the last few inches. Concentrate, turn off the radio, crack the window, and undo your seatbelt. Don’t be afraid to hop out to eyeball the spot. If there is a puddle by the curb and you have a passenger, park as close as you can to the curb by turning the wheel a little extra in the first and last steps. If you’re parking a huge vehicle with zero rear visibility, perform an ocular patdown as you drive past the spot to judge the excess room, then make sure not to get too far from the car in front at any point during the parking process. Mechanically sympathetic drivers avoid turning the steering wheel when the car is stopped. Master hill-starts in forward and reverse if you are going to be parking a manual. Finally, remember that the nose of your car swings out into traffic when you parallel park. Neglecting to account for this crucial factor netted me one “Major” error during my English driving test and prevented me from getting a full UK license. Dash!


Anonymous said...

£50 lesson, you got ripped off mate :/

Nick Goddard said...

I took the lessons five years ago--I don't remember exactly what they cost, though 50 GBP is probably close :(

Dan Rosenstark said...

This article rocks and is just what I need to up my skillz here in Astoria, New York. Thank you!

Nick Goddard said...

Hi Dan! Glad you liked it! Post another comment if you want to hear more or to discuss. I love chatting about parallel parking.

Dan Rosenstark said...

Hey Nick, well, my real questions at the outset would be: which parts of the formula are most subject to modification? Mostly I'm concerned about their cars being different from my car, and also what "one wheel revolution" might mean, since cars vary quite a bit in the result of turning the steering wheel. Also wouldn't mind taking this conversation offline, you can use onegallon [at] confusionists.com, for instance. Thanks so much for responding!