Robot’s Useless Reviews – Public Bike Racks

The makers of public bike racks asked what shapes they could utilize to create attractive, effective outdoor storage solutions for cyclists and were told, “Mostly just enormous letter ‘U’s. That’s what we can afford.” ‘U,’ as it turns out, is the most affordable letter other than ‘I,’ but for practical purposes ‘I’ wasn’t in the running.

“And where will our enormous ‘U’-shaped creations go?” asked the designers. “We will put them around the side of the building,” came the reply, “toward the back, where there is no light. They should be safe there.”

I’m of the firm belief that the last five feet of cycling infrastructure is what needs attention now. Where do we put our bikes when we’re not using them? We’ve dedicated millions of hectares to car parking, but precious few millimeters to the bicycle equivalent. To say token gestures have been made is to devalue tokens. It takes two to play the sit-down Ms. Pacman at the pizza shop now, and that machine is less rare than a good place to leave your bike nearby.

So what are the basic requirements? First, a bike rack needs to exist. This turns out to be much harder than you would think. Second, a bike rack needs to exist somewhere that bike-cyclists can find it. Again, not as easy as you might guess. Third, you need to be able to affix a bike to it. Yup. Another tall order. Fourth, once the bike is affixed, maybe even locked with a device that isn’t defeatable in seconds by a bolt cutter or pair of tin snips, it feels secure to the person locking it, i.e., they walk away confident the bike will be there when they return. Those are the basics.

Let’s hope that in addition to the four items above, a bike rack can also be located in a visible location, perhaps even lit at night. Let’s hope the rider has some idea how to lock their bike up and doesn’t, as I’ve seen so many times it makes me mildly nauseous, just lock it to itself next to the rack. Let’s hope all these things, because a stolen bike is a personal tragedy for a bike rider.

No one designing bike parking now seems to have measured the gentle arc of a U-lock to understand if their own ‘U’ will even be usable for the designated purpose. The entire bureaucracy assigned to bike storage and security seems to have conveniently overlooked the role of simple bolts in this whole boondoggle, too. For example, if you put one of those irregular ladder-type bike racks to use, it’s wholly feasible for a thief to disassemble it with a ratcheting wrench and a 1/2″ socket, much the way the facilities manager put it together in the first place, except in reverse. Furthermore, if the only part of the rack accessible to the bike is the front wheel, well, a lot of those are just bolted on too.

It seems like a problem no one in a position do much about it really, actually cares to solve.

As attractive as enormous ‘U’s are, I have seen spiral forms offered as well, long corkscrew affairs the designer was no doubt quite pleased with as objet d’art. These are useless, unless you are trying to open a proportionally sized bottle of pinot noir or explain to someone what shape cavatappi is.

The best bike rack I have encountered in public is actually a parking meter, although in some urban locales these have been made off-limits for cyclists, replaced with a sort of Celtic cross-looking affair which is not too bad, as that shape does offer multiple locking positions and allows you to loop the frame into your U-lock, but three of them seldom do the trick on a busy thoroughfare.

I am likely unreasonably optimistic about the uptake of cycling by the general public, but what I know from watching how cars go wherever they are allowed and wherever it is made easy for them to go, is that if you build it, they will come. If you’ve ever had the thought, “I’d ride, but there’s nowhere good to leave my bike,” you get my point. When you build infrastructure for an activity (e.g., driving, pole-vaulting, square-dancing) more people engage in that activity.

For erstwhile urban planners, here’s the good news. Paving a parking space costs about $1,280 (8’x16′ at $10/sf). You can fit about eight bikes in that same area, comfortably. For $10,240 (8 x $1280), you can afford a lot more than a row of enormous, useless ‘U’s, and that’s for parking right out front, maybe even under a streetlight, in plain public view, where bicycles affixed to whatever much more clever design you come up with stand a decent chance of not being stolen.

I like to imagine a future in which bike components are actual currency, and we bike riders run around trading Ultegra derailleurs and cranksets for laser guns and jetpacks. Until then, you can just get yours at the local bike store. Hang onto that stuff though. It’s valuable.

Join the conversation
  1. Jeff vdD says

    Practical shape. Visible. Well-lit. And with a security camera. (Piped to where, I’m not sure … but hey, I’m just the ideas guy here.) Bonus: covered.

  2. dr sweets says

    I literally ceased locking my bikes outside routinely nearly thirty years ago after having too many stolen or parts thereof removed. The only time I use locks (yes, two: cable and a U) since that time was if I am going in somewhere briefly where I can still see the bike. Mostly though the bike comes in with me or I do not frequent said establishment. The bottom line is my bikes are locked in my house, locked on my car rack, beneath me or I can see them.

  3. bart says

    “I’m of the firm belief that the last five feet of cycling infrastructure is what needs attention now.” 100% agree. The best last-five-feet I’ve experienced is where there is indoor bike parking with showers (several offices I’ve worked at), or where there are outdoor bike storage lockers available. I don’t just worry about the frame and wheels. I worry about the lights, the saddle, the electronics, etc. Bike storage lockers secure all of this stuff. Only problem I’ve ever had with the storage locker is when I arrived to my locker (at the end of my commute) to find that it had hopelessly frozen shut from the ice storm that happened in the previous 12 hours. After that I started carrying a little bottle of lock deicer with me – problem solved! I hate locking my bike to an outdoor bike rack with a U-Lock or other similar device. Just makes me constantly nervous.

  4. bhaskins1 says

    Here in Albuquerque some of the larger popular events like the balloon fiesta and the state fair have started providing a bike valet. A nice fenced in area that is staffed with people that stay there and check your bike in, give you a claim ticket, rack it and then retrieve it when you are ready to go. Quite nice really. And they have been getting quite a bit of use too.

  5. schlem says

    Often times, I will pop into the store after a ride, for an adult bevvy. My local grocery, has a bike rick out front. It is parallel to the sidewalk, and in front of a propane locker. Using the rack requires that your bike be positioned perpendicular to, and obstructing, the sidewalk, with several inches of your back wheel hanging over the curb into the parking lot, where cars move to and fro. As such, I will not use this rack. So I wheel my bike into the store with me. It’s usually after dinnertime, and the crowd’s thin. No one has yet batted an eye about it, but I have a canned diatribe in my pocket for that moment. Prepared, but not proud of that.

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