Does the lack of proper bicycle parking irk you? Might more people take to two wheels, if convenient places to lock bikes securely were more available? Space is at a premium; if we want to keep fitting more people into our towns and cities, we need to have a grown-up conversation about how we use this scarce resource, says Antony de Heveningham.
Tthere have been countless words written about the joys of cycling. The sense of effortless motion, the feeling of freedom, the wind in your hair. But I’ve yet to read a eulogy to something that I find equally as compelling about bikes as a mode of transport: how easy they are to park.
One of the attractions of cycling for everyday journeys is its convenience. Just riding to where you’re going, doing what you need to do, and then moving in to the next place. What happens to your bike when you reach your destination is something that most of us prefer not to think about. Perhaps this is because bicycle parking is a bit like plumbing: we only notice it when it becomes an annoyance. Too often, it raises some uncomfortable questions. Will there be any dedicated space for my bike? How will I be able to secure it? And how much extra weight will that mean carrying?
Cycle parking can also be tricky to get right. There’s no universal design standard for it, and sometimes it seems to have been designed by people who don’t cycle at all. An inch or two in the design details of bike parking equipment can result in something that’s frustrating and awkward to use. An example would be those designs of rack that make perfect sense in the Netherlands or Denmark, where most people ride sit-up-and-beg town bikes with a built-in rear wheel lock, but don’t fit a mountain bike securely. And location is also crucial. If cycle parking isn’t obvious, it might as well not be there. Having to store your bike even a few minutes’ walk away eats into the carefree convenience that accompanies many cycle trips, and adds to security worries. There’s no point in having a rack in a musty corner where nobody can find it, and the chances of anyone wanting to leave their bike in such a location decrease drastically.
What happens to your bike when you reach your destination is something that most of us prefer not to think about. Perhaps this is because bicycle parking is a bit like plumbing: we only notice it when it becomes an annoyance.
Of course, you can always do an ad hoc lock. A signpost, railing or tree can be a decent substitute for a bike stand. But then your bicycle risks becoming clutter. It’s harder to find something secure to lock to, your bicycle might get in the way of people using the street, and it might even be removed by an overzealous security guard. The recent controversy over dockless hire bikes, driven by the accusation that they stuff up city streets, might have a whiff of alarmism about it. But bicycles are like anything left in a public place – they always have the potential to become an inconvenience if space isn’t provided for them.
Sadly there’s a tendency for bike parking to be overlooked or shoved off to the side. And there’s an obvious explanation for this: towns and cities, places which by their nature have limited amounts of space, always seem to end up giving it to the cars. Whenever we plan and build cities, we allocate space to particular types of activity. Car parking is a prime example of this, and it takes up a lot of room. Some cities in the US have over 10% of the land in their centres dedicated just to car parking.
Even tiny businesses often have car parking spaces, regardless of how their customers actually arrive. Often they’re not even used for deliveries. Instead they’re sending a message that they want you to be able to drive there, and spend money there. The two things are linked by the assumption that people who drive cars have more money to spend than people who walk or ride bikes.
When you look at how people actually travel to places though, the importance of cars tends to be overstated. Surveys of shopping streets have found that business owners overestimate how many of their customers arrive by car, by as much as 100%. And the expectation that people will drive to a destination becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because the more traffic a place has, the less welcoming it feels to people walking and cycling. Moreover, space set aside for motor vehicles isn’t generally welcoming or hospitable for people. Think of the last time you had to negotiate your way through a big parking lot, keeping an eye out for approaching cars or trucks. Most parking places are sterile spaces, empty apart from the vehicles using them. They add convenience to some people’s lives, while inconveniencing others.
This might sound like “two wheels good, four wheels bad” dogma, but it isn’t about preferred modes of transport – it’s about space. If we want to keep fitting more people into our towns and cities, we need to have a grown-up conversation about how we use this scarce resource. In Europe, guidance for bike parking suggests that each space should take up 1.2 square metres (3.9 square feet). The standard size for a car parking space is 10.8 square metres (35.4 square feet), plus all the extra required for vehicles to circulate. Bicycles are a mind-bogglingly efficient way to travel, and that applies equally whether they’re moving or parked.
Imagine you went to visit someone’s house, and you weren’t offered a seat. Instead you had to perch awkwardly wherever you could, for the entire time you were there, until you went home again.
Cycle parking also sends out a strong signal about how a place expects people to travel. Imagine you went to visit someone’s house, and you weren’t offered a seat. Instead you had to perch awkwardly wherever you could, for the entire time you were there, until you went home again. Would you keep going back? If there’s a bike rack outside a shop, workplace or bar, it means that place values cycling. And cycle parking can also speak volumes by its absence. My local health centres have no bike racks; nor do many superstores or large retailers. As technology develops, and electrical assistance augments human power, bicycles become open to a wider age and fitness range, and much more versatile for hauling loads and carrying passengers. But these developments often take a long time to filter up to the people who design and build urban areas.
One journey that many of us make every day is to and from our job, and if you want people to cycle to work, there is plenty of evidence that bike parking is crucial. A secure place to put your machine is essential if you’re doing other things for several hours, and if employers go the extra mile and install facilities like a shower or lockers, it can provide all the incentive some people need to start commuting by bike. One study even found that providing bike parking at workplaces has the same effect as moving the office thirty minutes closer to the employees.
Bike parking can be artistic – think of David Byrne’s witty designs for Manhattan. It can even make a statement: one manufacturer has started making racks that are designed to occupy a single car parking space, complete with the outline of a vehicle, but hold ten bicycles. Bicycle parking is future-proofing for towns and cities. It’s time we started talking about it more.
- If the place where you live has a shortage of good bike parking, there are a few avenues you can pursue. You could try contacting your town or city council – they may already have staff whose job it is to promote cycling or active travel.
- If your workplace doesn’t have cycle parking facilities, you could ask for them to be installed. Sometimes grants or support are available for this. Some city councils will donate free bike stands to businesses that need them. And there are sometimes financial incentives for employees too: California allows workers with subsidised car parking to give up their space in exchange for a cash allowance.
- You also probably have a local cycling campaign or advocacy group who will already be having these conversations with officials. If you don’t, you could start one…
Antony de Heveningham discovered the joys of cycling for transport after three buses in a row failed to turn up. He lives in West Yorkshire with his partner and daughter, and can be found exploring the moors on a variety of mountain bikes, or riding to the shops on his Surly Crosscheck.