Photo courtesy of Landscape Forms

What Makes a Bike Rack?

With urban cycling on the rise, cities are trying out a every imaginable configuration for bikes parking

by Paul Lukas

As cities around America continue to add bike lanes, launch bike-share programs, and generally encourage an increasingly cycling-centric transportation culture, all of those bikes have to be parked somewhere, which has led to a corresponding explosion in the installation of bike racks. But bike racks aren’t just increasing in quantity — they’re also providing a case study in design diversity.

My own neighborhood in Brooklyn is instructive. The scores of bike racks that can be found within a half-mile radius of my apartment come in a wide range of configurations. The standard inverted U is the most common, but there’s also a pole with a small hoop; a pole with two large hoops; a large hoop with a horizontal crossbar; a squiggly sine wave; a pair of truncated diamonds; and more. At the Barclays Center, home to the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets, there’s a bike parking lot featuring a rack design called the Flo. A few blocks away, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, there are two racks designed by former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, made of metal letters that are periodically swapped out and rearranged to create different messages. One currently spells “Brooklyn”; the other, “Wildwonk.”

Photos by the author

And that’s just a small sampling. Search for “bike rack” images on Google and you’ll find a near-endless array of designs, ranging from the simple to the fanciful. In fact, it’s hard to imagine another product or product category that offers so many different solutions to such a seemingly straightforward design challenge. It’s all miles away from the old-fashioned “wheel-bender” racks that many of us grew up with.

Richard Hartger, founder and president of a Michigan bike rack manufacturer called CycleSafe, says there are several explanations for the all the different designs.

“For one thing, there are no national standards, no group out there that certifies bike racks, like a UL for electronics,” he says. “Also, there’s very little barrier to entry. Anyone with a Pines bender and a welding torch can make a bike rack, so you see a lot of different products rolled out by small, entrepreneurial outfits.”

In addition, bike parking is all about the interplay of negative space. Think about it: A bike frame and wheel are mostly negative space, and so is a bike lock (whether U-shaped, a coiled cable, or a chain). Toss in the bike rack, which is also primarily negative space, and you end up with a complex spatial interaction that allows for a broad range of design possibilities.

Still, some of those designs are more successful than others. Every industry professional contacted for this article said the key aspect to any bicycle rack is that it should support the bike’s frame at two points, so the bike doesn’t fall over. A surprising number of designs out there, especially the wave-shaped configurations, fail this basic test.

Moreover, as urban cycling has become more popular, bike racks are no longer mere additions or accessories to the urban streetscape — they’re now essential components of that streetscape and are increasingly expected to reflect and even enhance their surroundings, aesthetically as well as functionally.

Photos courtesy of Landscape Forms

“Bike racks are now becoming part of the identity puzzle for many communities,” says Kit Martin, Vice President of Marketing and Design for the design firm Landscape Forms. About a year ago his company launched a product line called MultipliCITY, which includes a simple bike rack with a wooden ledge on top. The ledge gives the rack added functionality: A cyclist can put her bag or helmet on the ledge while she’s locking up, and pedestrians can put their coffee or lunch on the ledge when the rack isn’t being used for bike parking. In addition, the ledge is customizable. “If we ship the product to, say, Brazil, the people there can apply their color scheme or species of wood to the basic casting and make it regionally specific or relevant,” Martin explains. “It’s a simple, mass-produced building block that can be customized to look like it comes from that region.”

At the other end of the spectrum are one-of-a-kind designs that double as public art. Those David Byrne racks at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, for example, are two of several Byrne-designed racks, each one a playful sculpture of sorts, that are scattered around New York City. Other cities have ended up with similarly whimsical racks by holding public design contests.

“I support communities having fun, having contests,” says Brett Hondorp, president of the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals, an organization that promotes better cycling and walking and publishes a list of suggested guidelines for bike rack design. “If you just want functionality, the inverted U is the simplest, the least expensive, and it’s perfectly fine. But if you’re in Austin and you want to have guitar-shaped bike racks, go for it — that’s reflective of your community. And besides, the best streets have elements that aren’t just single-purpose. Something can be a planter and provide seating. And something can be a bike rack and be public art. As long as the rack meets the functional requirements, go ahead and have fun with it.”

But don’t have too much fun. “The ‘artistic’ designs can be confusing,” says Hartger, the CycleSafe founder. “A lot of times they don’t look like bike racks, so people don’t even realize that’s what they’re for. And some of them look so nice that people don’t feel comfortable chaining something to them.”

Photos courtesy of the Columbus Department of Development

That was one of the challenges facing officials in Columbus, Ohio, which recently ran a design contest for bike racks that will double as sculptures in several of the city’s parks and recreation spaces. Fourteen local artists submitted proposals, which were narrowed down to eight finalists by a review panel. City residents then selected four winners, which will be installed in eight locations this spring. The winning artists get $1000, plus another $500 if their designs are installed at an additional location.

“We were looking at ways of getting public art out in the community, and this was a rather inexpensive way to do it,” says Lori Baudro, Project Coordinator for the Columbus Public Art Program, who oversaw the project. As for whether residents will recognize the sculptures as bike parking, Baudro isn’t too worried: “If we need to secure a bike to each one, just to show people what they’re for, then that’s what we’ll do.”

Most people in the industry agree that the future of bike rack design will involve high-density parking solutions. “As more people bike, there’s going to be more bike congestion at the end of the trip,” says Hartger. “And as baby boomers keep biking as they age, they may start using more electric-assist bikes, which have bigger frames and sometimes need bigger racks. In any case, cities and mayors, they all want bike-share and bike lanes, so in general I think the market will be increasing.” And that means the diversity of bike rack designs will likely be increasing as well.