Where Do I Park my Bike?

As cities and property owners continue to advocate for bicycling, where should we park our bikes?

The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) produced a guide for planners to use when siting bike parking. An even more detailed guide is available from the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals. The Town of Chapel Hill has a remarkably fine-grained guidebook for what, where, and how bike racks can and should be installed. Most cities with enough cyclists to require ample bike parking have guidelines that aim to improve the quantity and quality of of bike storage capacity. But compared to the great lengths that most municipalities go to in order to ensure quick, convenient, and safe access to and from automobile parking facilities, it is worth asking the question: where will the bikes go?

Let’s examine two examples from the UNC-Chapel Hill campus. First, the Ram’s Head Dining Hall. Located along a major bicycle and pedestrian thoroughfare between the central campus and most of the undergraduate residence halls, this is a great example of bike parking that doesn’t really make sense. Below is an aerial image of the site.

Photo Credit: Google Earth Images. Author’s labels.

In terms of accessibility, the dining hall is excellent. It is easy to see for passersby and has level entries from nearly every angle. And there is some bike parking directly in front of the building. But what happens when the 4 wave racks at the building’s front, with a total capacity of 16 bikes,  are full? As the image above indicates, there is additional bike parking on the north side of the building. But the images below tell a different story.

Bike locked to a railing outside Ram’s Head Dining Hall. Photo Credit: author’s image
Additional bike parking on the north side of the building. Photo Credit: author’s image

In the top image, bikes are locked to the railing leading to the building because the other racks in front of the building are also full. Meanwhile, just north of the main entrance (shown by the arrow in the aerial image), there is ample bike parking that is almost entirely unused. What went wrong here? Take a look at the aerial image again. If you were walking towards campus from the residence halls, where would you look to park your bike? What if you were coming the other direction? Would you look for a place to stash your bike that is hidden around a corner and out of sight? Maybe–especially if there is signage clearly indicating that there are additional bike racks around the corner. Or would you join the crowd and lock up on the railing?

I am not opposed to getting creative with bike storage. I have locked my bike to all sorts of inanimate objects when I’ve found myself somewhere lacking formal bike parking. However, here, the university has gone through the time and expense to plan and execute bike storage for the building’s users–and yet they aren’t using it. This is not a failure to provide adequate bike parking. In fact, there’s quite a bit of bike parking at the Ram’s Head Dining Hall. The failure here was in the siting. The takeaway: people will use bike racks if they’re clearly visible. If they aren’t, people will  lock-up to whatever is suitable and convenient.

Let’s look at another example. New East, the humble home of DCRP, is located close to the middle of the central campus, adjacent to Cameron Avenue, the main road joining the central campus with major residential areas to the west. In this case, the bike parking is located in clear view to the front of the building.

Photo Credit: Google Earth.
Approaching New East from Cameron Avenue. Photo Credit: author’s image.

Whether approaching the building from the east or west, the bike racks are clearly visible. Because the vast majority of visitors approach the building from Cameron Avenue, it makes sense that most of the bike racks would be located there. However, there is other bike parking located near major ped/bike pathways north of the building as well.In my opinion, the New East bike parking was executed much better than the Ram’s Head Dining Hall bike parking.

The key is not about the type of bike rack but the placement of the bike rack in relation to the people who are going to be looking for it and using it. For some reason, at the Ram’s Head Dining Hall designers didn’t place the majority of bike parking where it could be easily seen by the people who would be looking for it, and so people improvise. At New East, there is no mystery. The bike racks are right where any user would expect them to be: clearly visible from Cameron Avenue.

Are we spending enough energy making it convenient and safe for cyclists to park their machines? Are we spending as much energy and intention on bicycle storage as car storage? In some cases we certainly are, but if we seek to make cycling as easy as driving, the practice demands more attention.

The next time you park your bike ask yourself: why did I park here?

About the author: Chris Bendix is on the Editorial Board for CPJ. He will graduate from DCRP in 2017 with a specialization in Housing and Community Development and has passion for planning equitable transit-oriented development.