Recently Stamen was asked by GOOD Magazine to participate in a recurring event called GOOD Design, the basic premise of which is to pair city agencies with local design firms in order to propose solutions for thorny problems of the agencies’ choosing. The deadlines were tight (about 6 weeks), and the designers were told that they could involve the city as much or as little as they deemed necessary. The exercise culminated in a series of presentations by the designers to a public audience at SPUR, the San Francisco Planning + Urban Research Association.
We were asked to work with the San Francisco Municipal Transit Authority. Our challenge:
Design a menu of street and transit integrated bicycle parking options that meets the urban safety, accessibility, utility, durability and security needs of the SF population.
If you know me, you can probably imagine how I reacted. Cycling is near and dear to my heart, so I volunteered to take it on.
Eric and I met with some very smart folks at SFMTA, and they defined the problem in more specific terms. They told us that space is at a premium on San Francisco sidewalks because of planning code regulations which stipulate curb set-back distances, limiting the availability of space for racks. We were told to consider connections to transit because the city’s topography limits (or at least slows) cyclists’ access to some parts of the city. Taking bikes on Muni is a pain in the ass as it is, and often it’s impossible because buses only have 2 front rack spaces. (LRV lines don’t allow bikes on board at all.) Long-term storage and integration with bike sharing facilities were also identified as challenges to address.
At this point, it’s worth noting that I (and we, as a company) have never done anything like this before. We don’t design physical systems. We work with data to create visual representations that make it clearer, and provide intuitive interfaces that allow people to dig into it and draw their own conclusions. The folks at GOOD are familiar with our work, and they knew this. So I saw the project as a rare opportunity to exercise my Design muscle—to get out of my comfort zone and actually take a position on a subject. The biggest challenge for me was going to be creating a visualization that could make (or at least bolster) the argument that was already forming in my brain.
Our first thought was that we could use the data to make suggestions for where bike parking should be added or improved. So we got a bunch of data from SFMTA, and I started mapping it out. I overlaid bike counts from 2006 through 2008 with land use shapefiles from SFGIS. I did the subtractive blending thing with TEP’s rapid Muni designations, the existing bike network, and the street grid. Mike made the brilliant suggestion of using streets’ slopes to emphasize ones that were more bike-friendly, so that we could see which parts of the bike network overlapped with flat roads:
None of this told us anything about bike parking, though. Sure, there were the black lines that represented low-grade stretches of road well served by both transit and bike facilities. The SFMTA bike counts showed locations that were clearly being heavily used by cyclists, but the data was too sparse to draw any conclusions from it. After hacking on maps for a couple of days I still didn’t feel comfortable making a proposal based on visual artifacts alone. So I stepped back, switched on the right side of my brain, and attacked the problem from another angle.
Capacity, Security & Convenience
I started by defining three primary qualities of good bicycle parking: capacity, security, and convenience. All three of these, it turns out, are inexorably linked. Secure (for the bike, and safe for the cyclist) parking facilities are in well-traveled, public places, which makes them more convenient. High-capacity facilities are more convenient because they’re less likely to be full, reducing the likelihood that you’ll have to find somewhere else to park (which, as a result of being located further away, may also be less safe or secure). I did a bunch of research on existing facilities in other bike-friendly cities around the world. I read about some very cool technological solutions both purely conceptual and already in use. And, finally, I took stock of what we have in San Francisco. The first thing to address was how most cyclists park on a day-to-day basis.
There was a lot to consider. Sidewalk parking is extremely limited in San Francisco for several reasons. Thanks to the Bike Plan injunction, the city has essentially been unable to install bike racks for three years, which results in most cyclists having to lock their bikes to parking meters, street signs, and trees. The city is going to start a trial of their SFpark system next year, which has the potential to render them obsolete, and at which point the city could either remove them entirely or turn them into more explicit bike parking with “ring and sleeve” attachments. But that doesn’t address the problem of places in the city without parking meters already. And, as the Bike Plan points out:
Where quality bicycle parking facilities are not provided, determined bicyclists lock their bicycles to lampposts, parking meters, street signs, trees, or other street furniture, all of which are undesirable because they are often less secure, can interfere with pedestrian movement and can create liability issues or damage to street furniture or trees.
And with the exception of the wider sidewalks downtown and streets within or bordering parks, there aren’t many places that can reasonably accommodate new parking structures. All of the technological solutions that I read about (underground elevators with swipe card access, solar-powered bike trees with RFID, etc.) seem to introduce more issues than they solve. So, where to we put bicycles if the sidewalks can’t accommodate them—or if the sidewalk just isn’t an appropriate place for bicycles to begin with? The answer (somewhat problematically, as I’ll explain later) is the street.
Lo and behold, the relatively new bike corral in front of the SF Main Public Library is a near-perfect example. It fits lots of bikes, its bollards provide both the sense and reality of safety from passing motor vehicles, and the circular racks are easier to lock to and more secure than their staple-shaped ancestors. And it’s right in front of the library entrance. Capacious. Secure. Convenient. Bike corrals formed the backbone of my presentation, and I even suggested a couple of improvements: Give them shelter from the elements, because it rains a lot in the winter here; and make them well-lit so that they’re safer and easier to use at night.
Growing the city’s bicycle parking capacity with corrals by strategically co-opting parking spaces throughout the city has the potential to make biking a much more appealing affair than it’s perceived to be right now, because doing so both actually makes people’s lives easier and acts as a form of not-so-subtle advertising to motorists and pedestrians. A well-placed corral provides rock star parking for many more people than you could fit in a single car, and this point needs to be driven home to would-be cyclists.
I also looked at long-term parking facilities. Secure long-term facilties are important for cyclists who travel long distances or need to ditch their bikes for long periods away from home. Some European cities (like Beilen) offer single-bike storage lockers at airports and train stations. We have exactly 31 such lockers in San Francisco, distributed meagerly amongst private automobile parking lots throughout the city. This is a good start, but the city really needs to advertise these more and get more of them installed if they want to attract more “serious” users, such as office commuters and people who travel by bike. Shoppers who bike to their destination may choose to take a taxi or transit home if they’ve loaded up on bags and return to get their bikes later. Providing all of these users with secure, convenient parking infrastructure could go a long way toward driving adoption amongst people who rely primarily (if not exclusively) on the ease of automobile access to their destination. According to Tom Vanderbilt,
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.)
In my presentation I touched briefly on strategies for getting more long-term bike parking installed. Cities such as Pittsburgh and Philidelphia have planning code regulations on the books that require a share of new parking facilities be allotted for bicycles in both commercial and residential developments. New York went a step further and mandated that existing private garages sacrifice some car space for bikes. San Francisco has some regulations simliar to Pittsburg’s and Philidelphia’s, but they’re pretty weak. If mandating a larger share of bicycle parking proves difficult (parking in San Francisco being as politically charged an issue as it is) the city should consider encouraging garages and new developments to provide it with tax breaks.
However, there are a number of issues with tightly coupling bicycle and automobile parking, and at some point we’re going to have to go further. Rather than expound upon those ideas, though, I left some time at the end of my presentation for a fairly radical idea.
Devalue the Bicycle
Mike and I have been to Amsterdam and Copenhagen recently, respectively, and both observed how radically different cycling is there from American cities. Mike explained that the lack of value prescribed to bikes is what he thinks makes them so much more prevalent in Amsterdam. There are obviously a lot of factors at work (quality of infrastructure and transit policy being much higher on the list, obviously), but the need for an explict bicycle “culture” is one that we would do well to abolish. Ours is a fundamentally materialistic society, and I think that one of the biggest barriers to wide-scale adoption of the bicycle as a mode of transit is ownership.
When most people first “get into cycling”, they go out and buy a bunch of stuff: a shiny new bike, a helmet, sporty gloves, socks, reflective pant leg straps, rear-view mirrors, lights, bells, and so on. What they quickly discover, though, is that so little of that is necessary for just getting around town. The amount of time and effort it takes to get ready for a bike ride can be a big deterrent to riding often. The security of the bike and the speed at which it can be locked and unlocked become really important. (If people don’t perceive the sidewalk to be a safe place to leave their bike, they’re not going to take it anywhere.) The hassle of having to carry bikes up and down stairs or walk them up steep hills can break even the most determined adopters. The answer to all of these problems is to commoditize bikes so that it’s not necessary for anyone to own one—or if they do, help people feel comfortable enough leaving it out on the sidewalk overnight without worrying that it’ll be stolen.
Bike sharing programs are one solution. The bicycle parking system entry on Wikipedia says:
The launch of Velo’v in Lyon, France turned out to be a watershed. An bike unfriendly city prior to the launch of Velo’v in 2005, Lyon saw an increase of 500% in bicycle trips, a quarter of which were due to the bike sharing system. Velo’v introduced a number of innovations that were later copied by Velib and most other systems, including electronic locks, smart cards, telecommunication systems and on board computers.
The solution that I proposed in my presentation was to seed the city with beater bikes. European cycling havens haven’t done this explicitly, but the effect of devalued bicycles there has been that people approach cycling in a much more casual manner than we do in America. Most Danes and Dutch have their bikes “stolen” often; what makes it okay is that there’s bound to be some crappy bike nearby, unlocked and just begging to be ridden away. Some may see this as utopian socialism at best, and anarchy at worst; but the fact remains: The less you care about your bike being stolen, scratched, or harmed in any way the more comfortable you’ll feel leaving it on the sidewalk; and thus, the more likely you’ll be to take it out with you around town. Seasoned city cyclists know that the best way to prevent theft is to make it look as though no part of your bike is worth stealing. What better way to do that than ride a bike that isn’t actually worth much to begin with?
The presentation itself went pretty well. I spoke way too fast and tripped on a couple of words, but the audience seemed interested and appreciative. During the Q&A afterward SFMTA’s Tim Papandreou admitted that distributing beater bikes throughout the city was an interesting idea, but said that the city couldn’t adopt it as policy. Even if San Francisco’s bike sharing program succeeds, though, I still think that it would be interesting to see the effects of free beater bikes scattered throughout the city.
Another important point that I made was that SFMTA really needs to start collecting more data. They need to have a better idea of how many people are riding bikes in the city, where they’re going, and where parking is a problem. They installed an inductive loop counter on Fell St this February, but they’re going to need lots more counters throughout the city and at least a year’s worth of data if they’re hoping to use automated counts as evidence of the need for improved infrastructure. My hope, of course, is that they will then make that data available to the public so that people like me can make maps which bolster their arguments.
The thing that Tim said which stuck with me most was that they need more people to show up at public hearings to advocate for infrastructure like bike corrals. Automobile parking is a very touchy issue in San Francisco because drivers feel that there isn’t enough of it to go around as it is. But there are many people with cars in San Francisco who wouldn’t need them if we had better public transit and bicycle infrastructure, and car sharing programs can fulfill the infrequent automotive needs of many city drivers. San Francisco’s motorists have a lot of preconceived (and fundamentally inaccurate) notions of the private automobile as the lifeblood of city commerce, and helping them understand why replacing a parking space for a single car with a corral that can fit 20 times as many bikes is a good idea will require lots of time and patience.
The key, I think, is to find locations in neighborhoods with politically engaged citizens who support cycling, and implement better bike parking there first. Before installing permanent racks, the city could even test locations by reclaiming metered spaces, like Park(ing) Day but sanctioned by the city and studied by SFMTA. Once the city is able to demonstrate the potential for dedicated on-street bike parking to dramatically increase sales (and I honestly think that well-placed corrals will do so for places like Bi-Rite and Four Barrel), savvy businesses will be clamoring for them.
The SFMTA needs our help to make these things happen. Public hearings about parking are dominated nowadays by the fearful voices of drivers and business owners who don’t know any better. Attending these hearings helps us learn, as individuals, what the terms of discussion are and better understand the concerns of those who are opposed. Showing up at these meetings also sends a powerful message to the opposition and the community: Cyclists are here to stay, and we care about both local businesses and the design of the city’s streets.
SFMTA has rightfully celebrated the dramatic increase in cycling in our city over the last couple of years. And I think it’s important to remember that these gains were gotten while the injunction was still in place, which means that people are adopting cycling despite the lack of new infrastructure. I can’t wait to see what happens when the injunction is lifted and the city is able to start improving the situation for cyclists on our streets.
I really have to hand it to GOOD for putting on these events. They set a precedent for city governments to reach out to the design community for solutions to particularly hairy problems. Both parties benefit from these relationships: The city gets a fresh perspective on design, and the firm gets an opportunity to become civically engaged and attain local relevance and recognition. I’ve made it a personal mission to get Stamen more directly involved in the design of cities, and this was a huge step in the right direction.
So, both on behalf of my company and as a citizen of the forward-thinking city of San Francisco: Thanks, GOOD Magazine.
Check out the slides if you’re into that sort of thing.
GOOD Design event organizer and moderator Alissa Walker wrote up this wonderful recap of the San Francisco event. You can read her coverage of past events in Los Angeles here and here, and be sure to check out her Design Is a Verb blog for news on upcoming events in a city near you.
More on bike parking:
- Tom Vanderbilt’s excellent op-ed, How decent bike parking could revolutionize American cities, is chock full of information (and links to other thoughts) on bike parking.
- New York’s Transportation Alternatives has a great indoor bicycle parking campaign.
- David Hembrow exhaustively documents some of Europe’s bicycle infrastructure, sometimes focusing specifically on cycle parking.
- San Francisco’s Bike Plan has an entire chapter dedicated to bike parking.