Can There Ever Be Too Many Bikes?

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Submitted by Eric Britton:

Here’s a thought experiment for you. If you and I hate to see lots of parked cars dumped on city streets for which we have other and a lot better uses, should we love it when we see lots of parked bikes? Or might that be a sign of some kind of deeper systemic inefficiency to which we could usefully give a thought or two?

How do you feel when you see hundreds, or thousands, of bikes parked in one place? As a sustainability and bike person I always in the past found it a combination of wonderful, hopeful, and somehow vaguely scary. (And just about always for the very big lots or structures, extremely ugly.)

But now that I know a bit about shared city bikes, I look at them in an entirely different way. Now, above all, they give me a great feeling of waste. Unnecessary waste.

To help you think this through, click to the wonderful pics that Pascal van den Noort of Vélo Mondial has assembled of one mega bike parking facility in the center of Amsterdam. Luud Schimmelpennink, the father of the free bike movement with his White Bicycles in Amsterdam in the late sixties, tells us that this particular facility was originally built to accommodate a couple of thousand bikes, but today there are going on 4,000 parked there, fully twice planned capacity. Pascal’s photos give us a good feel for that. And studies show that barely 1,500 of them actually move on a given day.

Hmm. All those bikes just sitting there on valuable Amsterdam real estate that could be put to far better public uses. That must be costing the city a bundle.

Kind of makes you think that even Amsterdam might find some use in city bikes. And hey, they’re working on it.

Eric Britton, an American in Paris, founded the New Mobility Agenda in 1988 and the World City Bike Collaborative in 2005.

Photo by Pascal van den Noort

  • A bike is like a pair of shoes. It needs to fit your properly or you will not travel very far without compromised comfort or safety. For that reason, many people will prefer to use their own bikes instead of city bikes.

    But private bike ownership does not have to be the same kind of public space problem as private car ownership. Just like I don’t keep my shoes in the hallway of my apartment building, I don’t keep my bike out on the street. However, locking a bike to a designated bike rack is acceptable. Bikes take up a lot less room than cars, and since we currently give up so much street space to cars, I see nothing wasteful about replacing one or more parking spots per block with bike parking.

  • Christian

    Less room than cars but you’re still turning over public space for the free storage of a private vehicle.

  • gecko

    Great point.

    Finetuning urban transport there should be small difference between using public and private bikes and ultimately a matter of personal preference and convenience.

  • Lee

    And our goal isn’t to just replace every car with a bike, but to reduce the need for so much travel in the first place, isn’t it? I’d much prefer for our cities to work on creating diverse enough neighborhoods that more people can live close enough to their destinations to get to where they’re going without a car, bike, or transit.

  • Peter

    i agree – we should get rid of bikes.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    today there are going on 4,000 parked there, fully twice planned capacity. … And studies show that barely 1,500 of them actually move on a given day.

    Well, that’s the problem there. If people are not going to use the bike for days, then they should leave them in their buildings, or at worst on the street outside, not in a destination bike parking facility near a transit hub.

    The government might have a role in providing on-street long-term bike parking near residences, but not like this.

  • Dave H.

    Has anyone seen an effective way to charge by the day or hour for bike parking? Is there any space-efficient and cheap method to do so?

  • Angus Grieve-Smith
  • Vroomfondel

    The German city of Muenster has more bikes than people, and bike parking around the central train station is pretty wild, much worse than the parking facility in Amsterdam (http://lustich.de/bilder/schilder/fahrrad-parkplatz/). In response, Muenster imposes time limits and enforces them by marking tires with chalk and removing marked bikes after a couple of days.

    A similar approach should take care of the worst abuses at the Amsterdam facility. Beyond that, the inefficiency of this facility seems rather minor, and I don’t mind devoting public space and resources to a highly desirable mode of transportation.

    Finally, I’m amazed that folding bikes don’t get any mention in this context. When I moved to New York, I quickly decided that a rigid, full-sized bike wouldn’t be viable due to theft, vandalism, lack of parking, and the size of my apartment. My folder fits under my desk, and I’ve taking it into cafes, restaurants, and movie theaters without any trouble. (I do make a point of asking whether it’s okay to take the bike inside, and I’ve never had a truly negative reaction.) Folders mostly obviate the need for parking, and they’ll fit in a good-sized locker if push comes to shove.

  • Outraged Paris expert strikes back at stupid New York critics

    (Down boy, that’s a joke).

    We have been discussing these and other related matters over at the forum of the World City Bike Collaborative and there have been

    My original title for this piece was a more anodyne “Should we love lots of parked bikes?“,though I have to admit that the in-your-face Streetsblog title seems to do a god job of getting your attention. So off we go.

    Back to substance: Friends from the Netherlands point up that part of the problem is the uncontrolled proliferation of “dead bikes”. Morton Lange, a savvy bike guy and scientist from Reykjavik, put it this way on the forum just yesterday:

    “I agree that a sea of bicycles is a nice manifestation of a cycling culture.
    But when very disorganized, and when blocking pedestrian or cycle routes it is
    not so good. And especially if a largish proportion is very seldom used.

    “But cheap ( essentially free for daily short term usage) 3rd generation rental
    bikes will not remove bikes from the sea of bikes. ( But probably fewer
    occasional bike users in cities will bring their own, so reducing the influx of
    seldom used bikes, standing in heaps )

    “So perhaps simply issue free stickers to put on bikes once every three months
    or something. Those bikes that do not have newish stickers are moved away and
    stored in temporary storage for 6 months or a year. Problem is, that then
    there is a need for registering and retrieving bikes based on frame number or
    such. Perhaps the “senior” bikes in storage that are standard bikes could just
    be given to anyone who wants one, provided they don’t make a habit of it ?”

    One thing about what we call citybikes (free shared bikes spanning the whole city) is that they sure make you think about bikes a lot. Hey, if that’s the only thing they do, we really can’t complain. And if they do more and better, well whoopee (as we say in Paris France).

    The wide-open free-wheeling World City Bike Collaborative at http://www.worldcitybike.org

  • Peter

    No.

    This has been another edition of ‘Simple Answers to Simple Questions’.

  • Even the private swipe-card access (access for a one-off fee of $5) bike rack cage at my uni suffers from having some bikes which don’t get moved. I can imagine it’d be worse in a free, multi-storey bike compound.

    Can there be too many bikes? Yes, I guess if it’s at the point where bikes clog up the streets the way cars do. Unnecessary trips should be reduced and cross-commuting (or even travelling to the CBD from far away) is one of the big problems we face with transport.

    City bikes is one answer but every cyclist has different needs and a one size fits all approach is bound to fail. The solution? Better, localised mass transit such as buses and trams where people are no further than 400m from a bus stop and 800m from a train station.

  • Born & Raised NYC

    I’m sure if bikes became popular enough that congestion became a problem, pricing would be proposed. I can hear it now… “hey, if they want to ride their bike instead of taking mass-transit, then they should pay.”

  • No one should ever have to pay (or be licensed in any way) in order to move around public space using their own physical muscle power (whether that be walking, running, biking, skating, pogo-sticking, etc.) Certainly some of these methods are not appropriate for all public spaces, and therefore some modes may be restricted in some places, but the idea of charging people to move using their own power seems to violate a very basic freedom.

    The solution to too many bikes (not currently a problem in the USA) might include regulating where they can go and creative solutions to public parking and storage. In any case, compared to the issue of private motor vehicles abuse of public space, this issue is much easier to deal with.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Re: bike parking.

    “No one should ever have to pay (or be licensed in any way) in order to move around public space using their own physical muscle power.”

    “I’m sure if bikes became popular enough that congestion became a problem, pricing would be proposed.”

    I’d agree to the latter, but the issue here isn’t moving around, it is parking. And as in the case of auto parking, when something is free it will be wasted, and in short supply. At a prices of zero demand, even unneccesary demand, soars and there is no funding source to provide more.

    There is one municipal bike facility in Manhattan full of dirty, abandoned, rusting bicycles with little room for anyone else. The first time I decided to try bike commuting I tried parking there with the idea of taking the subway the rest of the way, and the experience as almost enough to put me off the concept of bike travel being practical.

    At the other extreme, the list of bike parking facilities on the TA website included only one with a sane price — $25 per month. One of them is $23 per hour. Are you kidding me? Why even bother to post it?

    It’s exactly like the requirement for restrooms to be free pre-Starbucks. The result — no public restrooms, unless you buy something, which made the cost of a pee really expensive (and counterproductive if you bought coffee).

    Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. To me it doesn’t make sense to join the whiners who want everything but want someone else to pay. That’s what the drivers did with CP. It’s what the Straphangers do with the fare. Why not get our own revenue source — if the space can be taken away from cars?

    So I like the idea of extending the sidewalk and taking parking spaces away from cars, and providing fairly priced (given how little space they take up) metered parking for bikes — free for 2 hours, 25 cents for the rest of the time from 7 am to 7 pm, free overnight (in reality then after 5 pm because the first two hours are free).

    If the meters (they’d be solar powered, I’d guess) recorded the time when someone last either turned them or deposited quarter, at least bikes left abandoned for a week could be removed.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Hey, I just saw the e-lockers clip. That’s what I’m talking about!

    There is no room on the sidewalks of New York, but there is room on the side streets, right where that SUV is now parked.

    Another location — New York City has been granting plaza bonuses for years in Midtown, where buildings are allowed to build larger in exchange for providing a plaza. How about buying a couple of those via eminent domain for bike parking and/or a place in Midtown from the greenmarket to locate?

    At what prices? Hmmm — that space has ZERO DEVELOPMENT RIGHTS associated. And the owner has an OBLIGATION to pay for MAINTENANCE for a PUBLIC space. That makes the value of the space…NEGATIVE, except for the value of not having the government screw it up right next to your building.

  • Mitch

    If Amsterdam replaced 4000 parked bikes with 1500 shared bikes, you’d still need a large and unattractive structure (not quite as large as this one, perhaps, but pretty big) to store the bikes. And the city would have to take responsibility for maintaining and keeping track of 1500 bikes. This would also “cost a bundle,” probably more than passive storage for other people’s bikes.

    Bike sharing makes sense for people who need bikes occasionally and for short trips. People who need bikes every day for the whole day are better off owning their own wheels and storing them in the fietsflat, if necessary.

  • Son of Shaft

    The fietsflat is a temporary structure and will be dismantled after the renovation of the central station is finished. It was intended to only be there till 2004. Renovations should be finished at the end of 2009. After the renovations the NS (Dutch Railways)will have their own structures at the sides of the station with parking for 10.000 bikes.

    Central Station Utrecht is building a (underground?) bike parking for 10.000 bikes but estimates of the wheelriders association indicate that it will have to be doubled by 2025.

    Being designed as a temporary construction the fietsflat can be disassembled and used in other places.

    At major stations it’s possible to rent a bike. Currently there are about 140 stations with bikerent. NS wants to expand that to 200.

    Bikes that are left behind will be removed. Usually once every 2-3 months bikes are tagged. The label says when the bikes will be removed, usually a couple a weeks later, and if you don’t want it to be removed you should remove the label. Removed bikes are brought to AFAC (http://www.afac.amsterdam.nl). If your bike is removed and you want it back you have to go there and pay 10 euro for administration costs. Or pay 20 extra and get it delivered. Bikes around the city that look like abandoned derelicts and bikes that are improperly parked will be removed. Currently around 2000 bikes a month are transfered to AFAC.
    http://www.afac.amsterdam.nl/download/AFACflyer_EN_2005.pdf

  • Son of Shaft

    Looks that the bike parking at Amsterdam Central station will be located underground.
    http://www.bakfiets-en-meer.nl/2007/06/14/bike-parking-in-holland-installment-1/

    I also noticed that guarded bikeparking at stations also have a bikeshop for repairs and purchase of bikestuff.

  • gecko

    What do/did they do in China with hundreds of millions of bikes?

  • This, apparently:

    http://www.terragalleria.com/images/china/chin5295.jpeg

    My guess is that a lot of those millions are/were used in rural areas, where bike storage isn’t a problem. Most of those rural Americans who whine about how much they need their gas-guzzling pickup trucks because they’re not served by transit would do just fine if they had bicycles and safe paths to ride them on.

  • gecko

    Cap’n Transit, Thanks for the picture of all the parked chinese bikes.

    And, your’re right about use in rural America just that developed world expectations (and comfort levels) are much higher and like the 40 million ebikes currently in China, rural and urban America would most likely benefit terrifically from communities and vehicles that have evolved using more advanced forms of hybrid human-electric technology that is much safer, more convenient, practical, and comfortable.

  • Andy B from Jersey

    I’m curious what the Dutch AFAC (or German ADFC) does with all the bikes that don’t get claimed. Do they refurbish and sell them for local use or do they sometimes send them to places like underdeveloped African nations where a bike can mean the difference between a 2-hour walk to work or a 20-minute bike ride?

    Really curious about this because a Dutch City Bike is much more practical for those in the Third World than many of the secondhand “toy bikes” that get sent over by many local U.S. charities (I’m NOT in anyway dissing those charities by the way).

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