What Would Get Americans Biking to Work?

Decent parking.

When we talk about transportation, we tend to talk about things in motion. What is often left unremarked upon, in conversations about crowded highways, is something without which those crowds would not exist: parking. That humble 9-by-18-foot space (the standard size of a spot) is where traffic begins and ends. It is the fuel to traffic’s fire.

Why is it overlooked? One possibility is that parking is more typically treated as real estate, the subject of arcane building codes and zoning regulations, rather than as a part of transportation networks; given that cars spend 95 percent of their time parked, this makes some sense. Another reason may simply be that, in most of America, parking is taken as a given. Donald Shoup, author of The High Cost of Free Parking, has estimated that 99 percent of car trips in the United States terminate in a free parking space, which means the nation’s drivers don’t have much incentive to think about parking—or not driving. In many American places, there are more parking spaces than people.

If car parking is often overshadowed in traffic talk, bicycle parking is even more obscure. For many people in the United States it might be hard to imagine what there is to talk about. Why don’t you just stick it in the garage? Or: Isn’t that what street signs and trees are for? But as the share of trips made by bicycle has grown in recent years—in Portland, Ore., for example, bicycle use has grown nearly 150 percent since 1990, and an estimated 5 percent of people bike to work—new attention is being paid to what happens to those bicycles when they are not in motion.

The most high-profile instance of this is the so-called “Bicycle Access Bill,” recently signed into law after a New York City Council vote of 46-1.The measure will require the owners of commercial buildings with a freight elevator to allow people to enter the building with a bicycle—though what happens from there depends on the building. (See this useful summary of the bill.)

While the right to enter a building with a bicycle may seem minor, the bill potentially represents a huge de facto increase in the city’s supply of bicycle parking, which is currently estimated at 6,100 racks, many of these outdoors. What’s more, New York’s City Council also passed a bill mandating that commercial parking garages provide spaces for bicycles—one bike space for every 10 cars, up to 200 cars.

Why do these measures matter? Because parking helps make commuters—a lesson long ago learned with cars. Studies in New York found that a surprisingly large percentage of vehicles coming into lower Manhattan were government employees or others who had an assured parking spot. Other studies have shown the presence of a guaranteed parking spot at home—required in new residential developments—is what turns a New Yorker into a car commuter.

On the flip side, people would be much less likely to drive into Manhattan if they knew their expensive car was likely to be stolen, vandalized, or taken away by police. And yet this is what was being asked of bicycle commuters, save those lucky few who work in a handful of buildings that provide indoor bicycle parking. Surveys have shown that the leading deterrent to potential bicycle commuters is lack of a safe, secure parking spot on the other end. (In England, for example, it’s been estimated that a bicycle is stolen every 71 seconds.)

A number of American cities are now waking up to the fact that providing bicycle parking makes sense. Philadelphia, for example, recently amended its zoning requirements to mandate that certain new developments provide bicycle parking; Pittsburgh’s planning department is weighing requiring one bicycle parking space for every 20,000 square feet of development * (admittedly modest compared with the not-uncommon car equation of one parking space per 250 square feet); even the car-centric enclave of Orange County, Calif., is getting in on the act, with Santa Ana’s City Council unanimously passing a bill requiring proportional bicycle parking when car parking is provided. In Chicago, Los Angeles, and other cities, pilot projects are investigating turning car-parking meters—once semireliable bike-parking spots, now rendered obsolete by “smart meter” payment systems—into bike parking infrastructure.

Few cities are doing more than Portland—which has been experiencing a particular boom in bicycle commuting—to increase bicycle parking. In September, for example, the City Council will vote on code changes that would require residential buildings to have the same bicycle parking requirements as commercial buildings. Granted, Portland, Ore., is an unusual place for the United States: a place where business owners actually petition the city to build “bike corrals,” or collections of racks that tend to swap one or two car parking spaces for a dozen bike spaces, in front of their establishments, and where residents casually drop lingo like staple, meaning the type of bicycle parking structure that looks like a staple stuck into the concrete. And in a move that is sure to give John McCain fits, the city is spending $1 million of federal stimulus funds on bicycle parking at transit hubs.

Of course, even Portland’s efforts would look rather quaint in a country like the Netherlands, where an estimated 27 percent of daily trips are made on bicycle. Outside of, or underneath, Dutch railway stations in the major cities sit vast bicycle parking structures. In fact, parking is so readily available that many riders keep a bike at their origin and destination stations. The three-story parking-garage-style facility outside Amsterdam’s Central Station holds some 9,000 bikes, while Groningen has a massive, covered and guarded facility that holds 4,500 bikes. And yet even these structures do not seem to meet demand.

The spatial and aesthetic challenges of having too many parked bikes attached to every last lamppost and historic building has prompted some wonderfully innovative design and market responses. The underground “Bicycle Parking Tower“—actually a series of 36 towers—at the Kasai Station in Edogawa, Tokyo, holds more than 9,000 bicycles, any of which can be retrieved within 23 seconds via an automated mechanism. In Zaragoza and a few other Spanish cities, meanwhile, the Biceberg, a small kiosk beneath which sits a storage bay, creates spots for 92 bicycles in the same space that four cars would occupy. Another approach is to combine guarded bicycle parking in a one-stop facility with mechanics, bike stores, education, and other services, as with Brazil’s ASCOBIKE. Muenster’s “Radstation” comes complete with a bicycle wash—for $4. In the United States, the for-profit Bikestation sells secure parking (“valet and controlled access”) and provides air for tires as well as showers and Wi-Fi in its “bike-transit centers,” in cities ranging from Santa Barbara, Calif., to Seattle. At Washington, D.C.’s Union Station, a similar concept — with everything from rentals to repairs — is scheduled to open in August, a swooping shell of glass and tubes, designed by KPG and at least partially inspired by the arc of a bicycle wheel.

Of course, even in a bicycling paradise like Copenhagen, bicycle parking is hardly ideal. “Parking is the last great challenge in a bike culture,” as Mikael Colville-Andersen, who writes the Copenhagenize blog, told me. In its 2004 “Traffic and Environment Plan,” the city of Copenhagen, noting that bike parking wasn’t even assessed until 2001 (when it was found there were 2,900 spaces in the historic center), declared: “Only one third of cyclists are satisfied with their options for parking their bicycles and other road users, particularly walkers, are increasingly annoyed by parked cycles.”

This last point brings up another problem: So-called “bicycle pollution,” or the clutter of masses of bikes chained to every last railing.In a city where bikes outnumber people, this is perhaps inevitable, but it’s also a function of the inherent appeal of bikes—literal door-to-door transportation. As Colville-Andersen put it, “people prefer to park on the street, leaning the bikes up against the building. It’s all about ease-of-use. If you can’t walk out your door and get on your bike in under 30 seconds, it’s irritating.” Still, space has its limits, and in a design competition to upgrade Vartov Square, next to Copenhagen’s City Hall—which the mayor’s office notes “mainly looks like a cluttered and worn parking area”—there is a call for underground bicycle parking.

Meanwhile, back in Portland, Ore., as bicycle parking gets more respect, another bastion of the automobile landscape is getting a makeover: access, and perhaps even special lanes, for bicycles at the drive-throughs of fast-food joints.

Correction, Aug. 19, 2009: This article originally stated that Pittsburgh might require one bike parking space for every 20,000 feet of development.  The unit in this figure should have been square feet. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)