Prevent unnecessary situations like this by providing adequate bike parking.

Prevent unnecessary situations like this by providing adequate bike parking.

As anyone who bikes regularly will tell you, not all bike racks are created equal. Some bike racks are stellar: they’re intuitive to use, well lit, protected from the elements, and close to where you’re trying to go. These are the type that tell bike commuters, “You’re welcome here!”

On the other hand, there are bike racks that might as well not exist. They’re confusing to use, awkwardly placed and inconvenient, and if it’s raining outside, you know you will be riding home on a soaking wet seat cushion. If you want to know how pleasurable that feels, grab a pillow, submerge it in a full bathtub, and sit on it as you read the rest of this article.

A pernicious assumption may be at play here: the idea that any bike rack is better than no bike rack and really any metal contraption that’s bolted to the ground will do.  Not so. In the same way that an urban business would never clear out a muddy field around their building and declare that they’ve provided a parking lot for drivers, installing low-quality bike parking can often times be worse than installing nothing at all.

Thankfully, making bicyclists feel welcome is easy and inexpensive for any business owner or landlord. I’ll break down the qualities of a good bike rack into five criteria: location and proximity, protection from the elements, visibility, volume, and form.

1. Location and proximity

We’ve all seen it: the bike that’s uncomfortably locked up to a lamppost/fence/tree even though there’s a bike rack right around the corner. There’s nothing wrong with the sight of bicycles around town, but let’s be real: bikes locked up in random places are awkward and cumbersome to other street users. Plus their placement is often illegal.

Bike parking near the entrance of a university building makes door to door transportation easy and keeps bikes safe under the watchful eye of passersby. (Source: Christian Mercat)

Bike parking near the entrance of a university building makes door to door transportation easy and keeps bikes safe under the watchful eye of passersby. (Source: Christian Mercat)

So what’s the deal? Just like drivers, cyclists want the most convenient parking spot possible. In a mostly-rackless world, that lamppost/fence/tree counts as bike parking. With that in mind, head off this problem by installing racks next to or near the entrance bicycling customers and employees will be using. Besides keeping bicycles off your delicate trees, this also signals that your business is thinking about its cycling customers. As a happy side effect, more of your customers and employees may take up walking and bicycling, freeing up parking spots for customers who drive.

2. Protection from the Elements

As I mentioned in the introduction, a soaking wet seat isn’t pleasant. Neither are rusty chains, warped rear fenders, or scalding hot handlebars.  Placing bike racks under some sort of cover can go a long way toward mitigating these problems and encouraging bicycling patrons to stay a little while longer.

If a location’s patrons will be parking for longer periods, whether three hours or overnight, making sure that bike racks are protected from the elements is especially important. I can be fairly sure whether it will rain in the next thirty minutes, but if I’m going into work at 9:00 AM and leaving at 5:00 PM on a cloudy day, it’s best to play it safe and find a sheltered rack. By providing sheltered or indoor parking, landlords and employers in particular can reduce the need for residents and employees to drag their bikes inside—a graceless and uncomfortable situation for all parties.

3. Visibility

If a bike rack is installed and no one is around to see it, does it really exist? Visibility might seem like an obvious consideration, but you would be surprised by how often bike racks seem to be deliberately hidden away. If your bike rack isn’t front and center, it’s a huge waste of money. By not having your bike racks front and center, you not only miss out on the positive reputation and extra parking a newly installed rack can create—you are also installing something bicyclists won’t want to use.

Even if bicyclists do find out where the racks are, low visibility may still disincentivize their use. Installing bike racks in dark, out-of-the-way locations creates a precarious situation both for bicyclists and their bikes. No bicyclist wants to leave his or her valuable means of transportation in an unwatched location. Then there’s the more serious concern of human safety: in the same way parking lots are well lit to scare off predators, cyclists shouldn’t have to fear for their lives when they are returning to their bicycle after the sun has set. Get the most out of bike racks in terms of use and safety, and put them in a well-lit, highly trafficked location.

This bike rack fits a ton of bikes into a small space  and  protects them from the elements. Ace! (Source:  Tony Webster )

This bike rack fits a ton of bikes into a small space and protects them from the elements. Ace! (Source: Tony Webster)

4. Volume

A big part of getting the most out of bike parking involves installing enough racks to accommodate bicyclist demand. High quality bike racks are great, but only if there’s one available. A coffee shop that I used to frequent in Lexington has four decent bike racks, each installed by the city. They’re easy to use, near the businesses that bicyclists frequent, and highly visible. There’s just one problem: they are always full. The result is that bicyclists fall back into suboptimal behavior, locking bikes on everything from tables to signs to garbage cans.

Thankfully, we know how to resolve this problem: if you are running out of supply and there is still demand, it’s time to increase supply. Whether you buy the racks yourself or contact your city representative, this is a simple and easy fix in most cases. If your bike racks are totally empty, focus on considerations one, two, three, and five, and wait on purchasing more racks. If your bike racks are totally full, congratulations! You’re probably doing something right with those other racks, so do more of that.

5. Form

Buy the type of bike racks cyclists actually want to use. If you take nothing else from this article, know this: nobody likes grid bike racks, and very few people can correctly using them. You typically find them looking something like this:

Gross. (Source:  Spelio )

Gross. (Source: Spelio)

When it comes to bike parking, keep it simple. Bicyclists know and love the standard “inverted U” and “post and loop” racks—they’re intuitive, inexpensive, and space-efficient. If you need to serve a lot of bicyclists, my personal favorite is the increasingly common “coat hanger rack.” Plus, if you have the budget, you can order customized designs for your city, neighborhood or business.

Simple and cheap. Each holds two bicycles. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Simple and cheap. Each holds two bicycles. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Now that you know the five criteria of great bike parking, go check out the bike racks you like to use. If you are not a bicyclist, go check out the racks that are always full. Think about how these considerations help keep those racks full, and how they could be improved. Finally, if you are ever in a position to make decisions about installing bike racks, please remember these considerations! With a little bit of thought, you can help build a livelier, more economically productive street for everyone.

Stay tuned for tomorrow's follow-up article, “Making Space for Mobility: Three Policies to Expand Bicycle Parking.”

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Nolan Gray is a writer for Market Urbanism. You can follow him on Twitter at @mnolangray.