Blog Post

How Many Bikes Really Fit on that Rack?

Sometimes bikers have to improvise where to leave their bikes, but many common bike racks may be worse than nothing.

Bikers need wheel benders like a fish needs a bike lock.Photo Credit: forkergirl, October 28, 2002 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.

Biking cross-country from San Francisco to Boston with a friend in 2010, I saw few showers, and had even fewer shaves. As we paused for rest at various cities, towns, and trees across America, we attracted a lot of attention for looking like we lived out of the packs on our bikes (probably because we did).

But while we were seeing a lot of our bicycles, a lot of places we visited seem to have been designed as if bikes had never been seen there. Truth be told, where to lean our bikes while we stopped for a snack was low on our list of concerns (did you know that Cameron Pass over the Rocky Mountains peaks at 10,276 feet?), but as someone who often bikes around cities, finding a secure place to lock my bike while I go grocery shopping is sometimes a major problem. (For more on the importance of biking in green and resilient design, check out Alex’s article on Resilient Communities here.)

Maybe it wasn't the fully-loaded bike they were looking at.Photo Credit: Martin Solomon

Bikers are commonly underserved

By choosing to bike instead of drive, bikers save energy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and get exercise. I would love to gripe about road rage directed at bikers or the lack of high-quality bike lanes in cities across the United States, but this post is about bike parking: bicycle racks.

Misleading product information

One of the most common bike racks in public places—informally called a “crowd control” bike rack (because it looks like it could also serve as a barricade) or a “wheel bender”—doesn’t provide adequate protection from theft or the elements. Further, many manufacturers of bike racks will claim that “crowd control” bike racks can accommodate many more bikes than they actually do.

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Not all bike racks are used to their full potential. Choosing the right type of bike rack may help alleviate some problems.Photo Credit: Editor B, June 29, 2011 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.

As demonstrated by the picture to the right, many bike racks aren't used to their full potential. Only four of the 6 bikes in the picture above are using the rack as intended, and there doesn't appear to be any easy way to get more bikes in there. The bike rack was also installed near a tree that makes it tricky to use some of the spots. It’s not easy, convenient, or sometimes even possible to get the most out of them. It’s nearly impossible to safely lock your bike to the rack, as locking just your front wheel doesn’t actually protect your bike. Also, if someone slips and leans on your bike for support, well, you can imagine why they’re called wheel benders.

What to look for in a bike rack

It’s not difficult to find bike racks that fix most of the problems with “wheel benders”. Look for racks that support the frame of the bike, and make it easy to lock both the frame and a wheel to the rack. Be sure to install them in a way that maximizes their usability, and if possible, shelter them from the elements, either with a building or a dedicated structure. When fully used, bike racks should still provide easy access to the bikes by their users. Keep in mind that there are many innovative solutions out there, including bike lockers and racks that hang bikes on walls.

Is this really a priority?

Adequate bike racks may seem like a small problem compared to cyclist safety, but the lack of secure places to store bicycles is symptomatic of a larger problem: a serious lack of honest dialogue about what bikers and the greater community need.

When thinking about bike racks, it is important to understand how many bikers a bike rack will actually serve, as well as how secure they are (do they only protect your front wheel?) and what kind of protection they offer from the elements. For more guidance, check out our bike rack section here. Biking is a very sustainable and resilient form of transportation—it is time to have this conversation a little louder.

Bike racks: Not a joke

Are you surprised I haven’t mentioned LEED yet? As you may know, SSc4.2 in the LEED-NC rating system calls for a certain number of bike racks for buildings.

LEED critics are known to deride this credit for being given equal weight as other points that may appear more consequential.

I would challenge anyone who makes that argument to bike around any city or town for a day and report back here. Based on my experience, we need more, better-designed bike racks—not fewer. Choosing an appropriate bike rack is an opportunity to follow the spirit of LEED and bring more meaning to the credit.

Published October 23, 2012

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