An Incremental Approach to Bike Friendliness

In the small town of Thomasville, Georgia, a quiet biking revolution is taking place. It's not about building miles of protected bike lanes or installing a new bike share system. Rather, this community is taking some very incremental steps to make its downtown more welcoming to people on bikes, on a scale that works for them. Thomasville residents and leaders observed a basic need — one that would encourage economic activity downtown — and fulfilled it in the form of new bike racks.

Thomasville's bike racks are designed for maximum functionality, while also including a bit of branding and fun. 

Thomasville's bike racks are designed for maximum functionality, while also including a bit of branding and fun. 

A confluence of circumstances inspired these bike racks and led to their placement in specific locations. First, last May, Strong Towns member and Thomasville resident Haile McCollum took on a little public art and engagement project in which she used stencils to chalk the phrase "This is a good spot for a bike rack" in key areas around her town. It was part of a week-long focus on public art last year at Strong Towns. (You can read all about it here, and even get instructions for making your own stencil.) 

The City of Thomasville's Main Street Director, April Norton, began noticing the mysterious signs and they got her thinking. April had also been noticing spots around town where bikes were frequently chained up including on fences and trees. She was even hearing from business owners that customers stowed bikes inside their establishments — a particular challenge in small, tight spaces like clothing stores or restaurants.

April also started following and communicating with local bike advocates via a Facebook group called I Bike Thomasville to hear about where they thought bike racks were most needed and what sort of racks would be useful. Past experience had shown her that decorative, artistic bike racks aren't always very functional.

The final push came after April attended a downtown conference and heard from a group of bike advocates. "They said that getting people on bikes is a huge part of your town's economic development," she explains. "And I'm all about economic development. They also said 'Have you ever looked at someone riding a bike and seen them not smiling?' That put a smile on my face. I want to be in a community where people are smiling and they're happy and there's growth."

So April set about planning for a set of new bike racks. Last month, with the backing of the city's planning and marketing departments, 13 new racks were installed in pairs at strategic locations around the downtown, based on input from residents and observation of community needs. The racks were centralized to serve as many businesses as possible, and also installed with an eye toward ensuring they wouldn't impede future restaurants that might want to have outdoor seating.

April shared with me that the very first users of the new bike racks were two young girls visiting a coffee shop with their dad. Very soon after the racks' installation, Thomasville held its annual Rose Show & Festival which attracted thousands of visitors, some of whom took advantage of the new bike storage. The City plans to install new racks each year, depending on need and budget.

"Having a walkable and bikeable town is certainly an economic advantage," says April, "We want to capitalize on that." At Strong Towns, we couldn't agree more. We're thrilled to see towns like Thomasville that are inspired by our message of incremental change who are taking small steps that have the potential to make a big economic impact.

Four key lessons came out of Thomasville's bike rack experience and they're tactics that every city should employ when trying to make a more bike friendly community:

  1. Look to see where people are currently locking up their bikes. If you're seeing bikes chained to parking meters, benches, and trees, that's a good indication that a bike rack would be valuable in those locations.
  2. Ask local bike riders and advocates where racks are most needed. Simple and straightforward: Just ask people where they'd appreciate bike racks. This doesn't have to be a formal survey; follow April's league by polling the local bike Facebook group or just inquiring with neighbors who bike.
  3. Choose central locations. You're probably not going to start out by installing 50 bike racks all over town at once. Instead, start by putting in a few racks in busy areas where they can be used by patrons of multiples businesses and get the maximum bang for your buck.
  4. Install functional racks. This part is crucial; don't install a rack that can't be easily and safely used. That means thinking about the design of the rack and its location (i.e. don't put in a rack up against a wall or a fence that will render it unusable). Check out this helpful guide to what makes a good bike rack for more ideas.

How is your community utilizing bike racks? Please share your own tips and stories in the comments!

(All images courtesy of April Norton)