Neighborhood Empowerment Project: Humble Bike Rack Tells a Story of a Broken Process

HudsonSqBikeRack

This is the first post generated by the Neighborhood Empowerment Project, an initiative of our parent company, Open Plans, to change the ineffective way our city government responds to neighborhood problems. If you have a maddening story of dealing with the city, such as small changes taking years or simply being unable to find an agency that will take responsibility for a problem, submit your story here.

Quick! What’s the biggest factor preventing New Yorkers from taking up bicycle commuting?

If your answer is some variation of “safety,” congratulations. According to The New York City Bicycle Survey conducted by the Bloomberg administration in 2006, people who did not bike to work were asked what was holding them back. “Too much traffic/driver behavior” had a higher average ranking among non-commuters than any other response.

The single biggest reason people do not bike is lack of a place to safety store the bike. Source: DOT
The single biggest reason people do not bike is lack of a place to safety store the bike. Source: DOT

But close behind it was something rather simple: a lack of secure parking. Interestingly, while it had a slightly lower average score than safety concerns, “No safe storage facility for my bike” was ranked by more people overall as the most important factor influencing their decision to not commute to work by bicycle.

Since this survey was released, both the public and private sectors have taken great strides to provide New Yorkers with secure places to park bicycles during working hours. From the ongoing evolution of the city’s “Bikes in Buildings” laws to efforts by commercial property owners to provide bike rooms for their tenants, the options available to people who pedal to work grow each year. (And that’s not including Citi Bike, which counts among its top benefits the elimination of concerns about bike storage at the end of a trip.)

Unfortunately, there’s piece of the bike parking puzzle where New York City isn’t keeping up. And that’s the humble bicycle rack. According to a report in amNY by Vincent Barone, the pace at which CityRacks are being installed has fallen under the current administration:

The city set up an average of 1,633 new bicycle racks over the last four fiscal years under Mayor Bill de Blasio, according to figures in the Mayor’s Management Report. That is 42 percent less than the average of 2,808 racks per year during the previous four fiscal years — a period that predominantly fell under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s tenure, the reports show.

It’s not just sidewalk racks where the city seems to be moving at a snail’s pace. Currently, the DOT website lists a mere 55 on-street bike corrals in the five boroughs. (Actually four; DOT lists no on-street bike corrals in Staten Island, although the site may not have been updated recently.) By comparison, Portland, Oregon—a city of approximately 648,00 people—has 153 bike corrals.

Understandably, DOT has been focused on designing and installing protected bicycle lanes and making other improvements to the city’s bike lane network. But, there’s nothing stopping the city from developing great bike lanes while simultaneously delivering great places to park. In fact, the latter is a heck of a lot easier to accomplish than the former.

“Curbside bike parking is really low hanging fruit in terms of city action to make bike riding easier and more convenient,” says Bike New York’s Jon Orcutt. “NYC should be doing more, not less CityRack installation if we’re building cycling into a major transportation option.”

So why are bike racks and on-street bike corrals so important? First, most trips people make on their bikes aren’t to office buildings. They’re to grocery stores, schools, restaurants, dry cleaners, pharmacies, doctors’ offices, parks, theaters and to any of the countless destinations New Yorkers seek out in the course of their daily lives. For riding a bicycle to become as routine as walking or taking transit—and for it to be the preferred alternative to hailing an Uber or Lyft—the city needs more than just safe bike lanes; it needs to make bicycle parking widely available everywhere. (And while concerns about attire or showing up sweaty to work may influence whether or not people bike to work, they’re not as much of a factor when deciding whether or not to bike to, say, the gym.)

Second, dramatically scaling up the ability of New York to keep pace with demand for bike parking would unleash a host of benefits, including better organization of often-cluttered sidewalks and streets, increased visibility and safety for bicycling itself, and even a potential explosion in the growth of cargo- and kid-carrying bicycles among people for whom the only barrier is a reliable place to park a bike that can’t be carried up a flight of stairs.

But can’t people just lock their bikes to street signs, fences, or lamp posts? Sure, but part of the security and utility of bike parking comes from making it visible. While locking up to a sign post may be fine in a pinch, nothing beats a bike rack directly in front of one’s destination or home for ease of parking and peace of mind.

So what can be done to reform and expand the amount of CityRacks and on-street bike corrals in New York neighborhoods?

Step 1: Just do it

Getting more CityRacks installed is simple, if a bit of a tautology. All DOT has to do is make installing racks a priority. Right now, DOT fulfills requests for CityRacks as it can, prioritizing bulk requests “from Business Improvement Districts, civic associations or other groups of community members.” That’s an okay but inadequate approach according to advocates, who think DOT should take a more proactive approach.

“A big reason it’s hard to define a ‘good’ number of CityRack installations per year is the absence of stated goals or strategy for the program,” says Jon Orcutt of Bike New York. “Bike New York wants DOT to define areas where there will be curbside bike racks on every blockface, and to prioritize other strategic spots for CityRack arrays like subway stations outside the CBD.”

It can be done. The city of Chicago just installed 427 bike racks in about one month under a plan to add 4,000 racks and 200 on-street bike corrals through 2021, proving that where there’s political will there’s a way.

Step 2: Eliminate the CB barrier

As it currently stands, DOT accepts requests for on-street bike corrals from businesses, community organizations, property owners, and other groups who then volunteer to serve as maintenance partners and keep corrals clean and clear of debris and snow. However, unlike CityRacks which DOT can install as it sees fit, on-street bike corrals are subject to community board approval, although this is more of a norm than an actual legal requirement.

Technically, community boards have only advisory roles over street improvement projects, so all it should take to get a bike corral installed is the application, buy-in from businesses or property owners directly neighboring the proposed location, and inspection of the site from DOT to ensure it meets site requirements. (Corrals may not be placed too close to hydrants or active driveways, for example.)

Unfortunately, not a single car parking spot in New York can ever be repurposed into anything involving bicycles without having to be litigated before a community board. Because of the strange math of New York City streets where one car is valued more than ten bikes, there are so many hoops to jump through that the process for getting an on-street corral can drag on interminably, with no guarantee of success.

To fix this, DOT must be willing to remove the bike corral approval process from community boards and hand things over to communities. No one would suggest that bike corrals be put down without site inspections or that DOT not take into consideration such factors as safety or maintenance issues. However, it’s a waste of city resources to dispatch DOT representatives to present plans that affect no more than one or even a handful of parking spaces. DOT manages the curb and frequently changes parking regulations all over the city without having to seek approval from community boards. It can do the same with bike corrals. So long as organizations, businesses and property owners want bike corrals—and so long as locations meet DOT requirements—they should get them. Period.

City-approved DIY bike parking

The second step to streamlining this process would give community groups and businesses even more local control and also help DOT clear out a backlog of bike corral requests. And that’s to allow those willing to purchase and install their own on-street bike parking to do so.

Of course, DOT has its own design and engineering standards, but allowing individuals to purchase and install bike parking doesn’t have to come at the expense of aesthetics or safety. DOT could provide a limited menu of approved designs and outside suppliers for bike corrals. Business owners, community groups or other organizations could then coordinate installation with city-approved contractors.

This is already the process in Chicago, which allows businesses and groups to buy and install their own corrals. In 2013, a Shake Shack in Philadelphia installed what was then that city’s first bike corral “to be purchased by a business rather than funded by the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities.” A Milwaukee coffee shop did something similar in 2011.

On-street bike parking in Milwaukee. Photo: Over the Bars in Wisconsin
On-street bike parking in Milwaukee. Photo: Over the Bars in Wisconsin

Bike corrals, meet street seats

One needn’t look to the Midwest or across the country for examples. New York’s own Street Seats program provides one right here at home. The program turns curbside spaces into places for people “to create an attractive setting for eating, reading, working, meeting a friend or taking a rest.” And while it shares many similarities with the city’s bike corral program—including the need for a local maintenance partner and site inspection by DOT—the city does allow businesses and community groups to design and build their own custom Street Seats so long as they comply with DOT design guidelines and engineering standards. Whether a business or organization chooses a custom design or one of DOT’s standard designs, it bears the cost of construction and installation. DOT simply provides “operational elements, such as signage, wheel stop bars, striping on the parking lane, and/or temporary plastic bollards.” Why not do the same with bike corrals?

A DOT-approved Street Seat at 13th Street in 5th Avenue in Manhattan is one of many designs found throughout the city. Photo: Parsons School of Design.
A DOT-approved Street Seat at 13th Street in 5th Avenue in Manhattan is one of many designs found throughout the city. Photo: Parsons School of Design.

Obviously, allowing private businesses, community groups and property owners to pay for their own bike parking raises equity concerns. Would wealthy neighborhoods be dotted with conveniently placed bike corrals but low-income neighborhoods go wanting? Thankfully, this loosening of requirements could help, not hinder the pace of bike corral installation as it would free up DOT to focus its bike corral installation efforts on places where private funding is less available.

When all else fails, use paint

In many busy commercial areas, e-bikes and other delivery cycles clutter sidewalks. There’s no reason for this, and the fact that bike parking is often located on sidewalks leads to people riding their bikes there, something that frequently inflames tensions between cyclists and pedestrians. The solution is easy: park e-bikes and delivery cycles on the street, no racks or other hardware necessary.

Working with local businesses, DOT could devote on-street space to bicycles with no more than paint. For restaurants where delivery cycles tend to not really come out until the evening, such spaces could convert to metered car parking during the daytime. And any fears of painted spots being hijacked by placarded vehicles could be alleviated by allowing restaurants to set out traffic cones or temporary barriers during business hours.

Painted parking spots are increasingly common in cities trying to cope with the deluge of dockless bikes and e-scooters, especially on sidewalks. They’re also an established part of the bike-parking toolkit in places like the Netherlands and Denmark. And where on-street bike corrals require a maintenance partner and specific site requirements due to them being fixed to the roadbed, there’s no such concern with paint. If the pavement can handle a car or SUV, it can handle eight or ten delivery cycles.

Painted "fietsparkeervakken," or literally "bike parking spaces," in Amsterdam organizes bikes to keep streets and sidewalks orderly. Photo: NHNieuws
Painted “fietsparkeervakken,” or literally “bike parking spaces,” in Amsterdam organizes bikes to keep streets and sidewalks orderly. Photo: NHNieuws

These suggestions are themselves low-hanging fruit and could be instituted tomorrow with little in the way of policy changes or infrastructure challenges. All it takes are a few easy tweaks, trust in the power of communities, and leaders who recognize the still-to-be-realized effect bike parking can have on a 21st century city.

Doug Gordon is a TV producer, writer and safe streets advocate who blogs at BrooklynSpoke.com.

  • Regarding the painted spaces: to what are those bikes locked?

    Also, is there an attendant watching the bikes? (Perhaps so, as one of the bikes still has a saddle bag attached.)

  • crazytrainmatt

    NYC has trouble getting the basic sidewalk bike rack right. The standard rack here (shown in the first image) is too narrow and can only lock one bike on each side. Worse, they are installed haphazardly, too close together, too close or too far from the curb, or not parallel with the ROW.

    This is how you do it — these are all over Seattle and work great:
    http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_9-coSRlRBkE/TFoOZNpK3WI/AAAAAAAAAPI/KGH5ARrShzg/s1600/100_4910.JPG

  • Brad Sutton

    Many Dutch bikes have a lock permanently attached to the frame that locks the rear wheel. Like this:

    I’d guess this is just short-term parking for people in the shops, not meant to be secure overnight parking. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/1ca28e715ff50791f4b721c7b0867f40fe01f45e1ecb5045a382e43b2bfbceca.jpg

  • Joe R.

    The same also applies to errand biking. There are lots of times I’ve walked longish (i.e. 1.5 to 4 miles each way) errands for lack of a safe place to store the bike at my destination. If not for that, I would use my bike every single time on trips like that.

    I’m also not surprised that roadway surface conditions rank pretty high. That and too many traffic signals alternate as my major pet peeve about cycling in NYC.

  • I’d make one edit:

    Bike corrals should be able to be installed with minimal DOT approval/review when business owners or community groups request them.

    Yes, CBs have “railed against” bike parking in neighborhoods at times, and I think some of the most important conversations activists have had is to discuss how conservative, niche-interest values are inappropriately injected into representative institutions like community boards. Doug’s never been wrong on that… it’s a problem with how we manage and cover civic groups, a problem with who really gets a voice (and, particularly, power of unilateral veto) and whether they look anything like the communities they purport to represent. (It plays out in almost every silo of civic action)

    But DOT is not being as obstructed as they make it appear. They will drag-out or refuse corral installations even if local groups are OK with them. DOT is not an activist for more corrals. And they’ve allowed opposition on select community boards to stand in as the reason to kill proposals, but – just like with bike lanes – many community boards are fast-flipping to being oriented to safe streets and complete transportation networks only to find that DOT is reluctant to go along with it.

    Ironically, the only power any community boards have had here is power entirely handed to them by DOT, so by taking DOT mostly out of the process you also take away veto power from the community boards.

  • That’s what I have on my bike – they’re usually called cafe locks – and it’s perfect for when you’re running into a coffee shop or to the bank and can generally keep an eye on your bike during a quick stop.

  • “Bike corrals should be able to be installed with minimal DOT approval/review when business owners or community groups request them.”

    Agree 100%. If it’s a legal car parking space, turning it into space for parking bikes should generally be a snap and not be bogged down by process!

  • Driver

    What’s wrong with any old traffic sign pole?

  • Joe R.

    The thing is I don’t trust my bike out in the open like that. I’d prefer an indoor bike rack in whatever store I’m shopping in. Here’s a picture of my bike, so maybe you can understand why I’m so hesitant to leave it chained outside:

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/608758329cf56213b81744b368ad6e23f14e2e2002fc5ef3c47693e2741f6282.jpg

    This was probably a $4000 bike new. I paid $1320 shipped for it used on eBay. It also now has a rear wheel which I built myself, plus the home-made rear-wheel fairing. The frame is titanium (chosen because I don’t trust carbon fiber but I still needed something that doesn’t rust, given how my last bike was literally rusting out from under me). Overall, it’s the best bike I’ve ever had by miles. I’d hate to lose it to a bike thief. I also refuse to ride a shit beater bike just because of bike theft.

  • SSkate

    Pinged @NYC_DOT about a bike corral in my ‘hood that is listed on that website list but does not currently exist. Wondering if I’ll get an answer, or a note to complain to 311.

  • Vooch

    Joe,

    we’ve discussed then a zillion times – you need a $40 beater bike with a trashed frame, beaucoup rust, and 85mm wide tires, LOL

  • Vooch

    Locked ?

    In countries with bikes everywhere, theft essentially doesn’t exist. Brad’s photo is a typical situation.

    In Germany, one uses a lock simply to prevent some kid from riding off with your bike. People use locks that a strong fellow could bust with his hands.

  • Vooch

    I honestly believe Bikes & Scooters should be occupying curbside storage space as the default.

  • Greg Costikyan

    Just used the link you provided to request bike racks at the Essex Market. It recently moved one block south to a new location; the old location had a good half dozen bike racks, and the new location has none. I bike there frequently to shop, and the lack of bike parking is an issue.

  • In my experience, The main obstacle is the fact that the city does not install the racks systematically along the bike lanes and does not maintain the racks even when they are in the street bed. You have to go one by one to businesses to solicit their help.
    If the city installs parking space and cleans parking space for cars, why are they not compelled to do the same for cyclist ….? Another example of our taxes being used for the drivers .

  • Bike racks should all be in the road , not on sidewalks, where they encourage biking on the sidewalk.

  • JK

    Ironically, piece is locked into current bad curbside parking mindset that puts private cars first. It’s not a tradeoff between bike parking and private cars. A sensible curbside policy would put service vehicles first — because if your plumber, UPS etc have nowhere to park, they double park, which is very dangerous to cyclists and clogs traffic. Service vehicles must have a place to park, and in a dense city in which most neighborhoods do not have alleys, they have to be on curbside somewhere.

  • One can do a little better than that! I love my beater, it’s old, steel, made in Japan, 700c wheels, old-but-still-good mismatched Shimano bits. Frame has been touched up liberally with Testor’s model paint that is not even close to matching color. Got a rattly, chipped rear rack with a filthy, fraying bungee cord wrapped around it. Even with all my stupid commuter mods it’s still such a light and fast bike and best of all, seems like nobody is interested in stealing it.

  • thomas040

    Regarding the picture: I would never use a bike rack that’s on top of a grate. I’d be too worried about dropping my keys into that chasm.

  • AMH

    “The solution is easy: park e-bikes and delivery cycles on the street, no racks or other hardware necessary.”

    So what do you lock your bike to?

    I requested bike racks for the Cloisters last week from both DOT and the Met. It blows my mind that they have all that car parking, and absolutely no bicycle parking. And this is in a park!

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

The 2013 NYC Streetsies, Part 1

|
The Streetsie votes are in and it’s time to hand out virtual hardware. But first, a friendly reminder that Streetsblog needs your support. Reader donations are what Streetsblog runs on. Contribute to our year-end pledge drive and you’ll help produce reporting and commentary that makes a difference, so that when this time rolls around next year, […]

The 2011 NYC Streetsies, Part 1

|
The presentation of the 2011 New York City Streetsies kicks off with highlights from the past year. To catch up on the nominees and winners in the people’s choice categories, have a look at the voting results. Best Moment Streetsblog spent the better part of 2011 covering a half-baked lawsuit. Merit-less though it was, the […]

Q&A With City Council Transportation Chair Jimmy Vacca

|
This January, Bronx City Council Member Jimmy Vacca took over the transportation committee from outgoing chair John Liu. Vacca sketches out a street in his district where speeding is a problem. Photo: Noah Kazis Vacca represents an eastern Bronx district where car ownership is higher than the New York City average, and he’s come in […]

The 2015 NYC Streetsies, Part 1

|
Welcome to the first installment of the 2015 NYC Streetsies. The votes are in, and today we’re looking back at how streets changed for walking, biking, and transit this year. Tomorrow will be all about the people who left a mark on the city’s streets. The Best Thing That Happened This Year Bike-share debuted two years ago […]