There’s a school of thought that bike parking should be plentiful, visible and designed to call attention first to its function.
Lately, though, bike racks have become a palette for artists to reinvent the form. Cleveland has entered this new era of high design bike racks as finishing touches to streetscapes or festooned with ribbons at rail station openings.
When seen next to the relatively boring standard choice—one of the city’s 500 “inverted U” racks—you can empathize with the project manager who just wants to add a little color or “whimsy”. But, some things can fall into the trap of design for design’s sake.
The old maxim “form follows function” holds true particularly in the case of bike racks at Greater Cleveland’s rail stations where the objective should be to help someone lock up as quickly as possible so they can make their transit connection. A bike rack shouldn't force someone to perform gymnastics or leave them slack jawed and wondering. If that means a bike rack has the same simple, recognizable shape as those found around town and not try to take on a higher meaning as a sculpture that also doubles as a lockable device, then so be it.
An example can be found at the new Cedar-University Rapid Station.
Recently I rode my bike there from Cleveland Heights expecting to lock up and take the train to a meeting downtown. As I arrive at the station, the plaza is a visual minefield. There’s the assemblage of heavy metal canopies over a walk way leading to a bus-circulator loop. There’s large landscaping, lots of signage and a hodgepodge of matching street furniture that looks like its from a set of a Spike Jonze film. It takes me a minute, but I finally spy the bike racks tucked just to the right of the entryway. They are a set of what looks like bollards—the kind you tie a boat up to.
As I lock up, I’m reminded of the public input process that I attended at Judson a few years ago for this station. I recall not really understanding what the bike advocates were saying at the time. Why were they so concerned about bike parking being secure, visible, and maybe even indoors in a designated space? Now I see.
Bikes, frankly, feel like an afterthought in the $10 million investment aimed to attract people to try transit. While credit goes to at least placing the racks under shelter, the three bollard-type racks hidden from view don’t exactly scream "here we are” to the masses. Bikes can help extend the service area of the station which is not located near density, into the Heights.
I remember the suggestions at the public meeting—that RTA create better shelter for waiting passengers and to use the footprint of the station for secured, indoor bike parking. The upper head house of the new station—with its glass-enclosed waiting area—is an improvement that considers people’s comfort.
The same cannot be said about the use of space in and around the lower head house. The plaza is large and filled with benches. It would certainly have cost more to enclose a space near the entryway for bike parking.
The treatment of bike racks (and bus shelters) as a design element is trending in America. You would be hard pressed to see bike racks treated as public art in Europe or Asia.
When a bike rack is seen as a “fun” add on, it can send the wrong message. In Japan, an underground bike storage facility at a rail station has an elevator and a valet attendant. Across Western Europe, bike parking at rail stations is serious business. The Japanese example shows there’s an opportunity to innovate, attract, and provide room for growth.
I write this not to throw cold water on experimentation, but as RTA embarks on another call for entries to design a bike rack at its rebuilt $7 million Little Italy station, it’s an opportunity to invite transportation cyclists into the jury. The results may be a little less whimsical, but if more cyclists show up because they can picture the rack in their mind’s eye before making the trip, the transportation mission will be accomplished.