Like motorists, bike riders scramble for spaces
Casie Gillette was eager to look at jewelry and get a grilled cheese at the SoWa Open Market on a recent weekend, but parking in the South End was tight, and she was forced to circle the block before finally landing a spot.
For her bicycle.
"I got rid of my car because I was tired of parking," the South Boston resident said, "and now I have a new kind of problem."
No rider has yet to mark her spot with a toilet or a garbage can, as some territorial Boston drivers do on snowy winter days. But with a growing number of cyclists competing for limited places to lock up safely, riders are starting to suffer from a condition made famous by their vehicular counterparts: parking monomania.
"It's on your mind the whole day," said Andy Clinkman, an account coordinator who bikes to his Seaport District job at Kel & Partners.
Even as Mayor Thomas M. Menino continues his push to unseat cars as king in Boston, cyclists are starting to sound like drivers. They're griping about rack hogs who take up more than one space. They're avoiding areas where they know there won't be a single rack, parking meter, tree, gate, fence, railing, or sign that's not already hosting one or more bikes. And just like the very motorists over whom they lord with their zero body fat, they're complaining if they have to walk more than a couple of blocks from bike parking spot to destination.
In Central Square, bike commuter Chuck Tanowitz sometimes simply won't use his bike for a midday outing if he likes where he locked it up that morning. "I'll take a Hubway bike," said Tanowitz, a principal at Fresh Ground, a Central Square PR firm. Hubway is a bike-sharing network.
Bike advocates acknowledge that Boston, surrounding cities, and the MBTA are adding bicycle parking at a pretty fast clip.
Boston, for example, has tripled the number of city-owned rack spots since 2007, to about 3,000 today, said Nicole Freedman, director of the city's bike program. Boston University and other large institutions, such as hospitals, have also added a tremendous number of racks, she said.
At the same time, ridership keeps growing. In 2007, the city had 200 yards of bike lanes, said Freedman, a former Olympic cyclist. Now they extend for 64 miles. The number of daily bike trips hit almost 55,000 last year, up from 30,000 in 2007.
The city is doing well, Freedman said, but can do better. "We definitely want to add more spots."
The city got the majority of its racks for free, thanks to a grant, Freedman said, but when they do buy them, they're not cheap. A rack that can accommodate just two bikes costs $150 to $200.
Despite the additional bike parking, demand is outpacing supply, said David Watson, executive director of the nonprofit Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition.
And when racks are scarce, people lock up anywhere. Technically, only rack parking is allowed in Boston, but the city doesn't ticket violators. Rather, if neighbors complain, the city can remove a bike, something that happens about twice a month, Freedman said.
Adding new racks is not just a financial issue, however. Turf is at stake. Pedestrians, outdoor cafes, newspaper boxes, and garbage cans compete for sidewalk space. And some merchants don't want racks in front of their stores, although, as advocates point out, in some areas cyclists are a big part of the clientele.
“That’s the struggle,” said Jeffrey Rosenblum, a cofounder of the nonprofit LivableStreets Alliance and a Cambridge city transportation planner.
In a quest for space, some cities are starting to turn car parking spots into bike corrals, which can hold about 14 bikes.
In Cambridge, for example, several large curb-side racks around the city are marked off with tall traffic cones. The corrals are portable and can be put in storage during the snowy winter months.
Nonbikers don't spend much time thinking about cycle parking, other than to cringe at the skeleton of an abandoned bike locked to a fence. But in biking circles, it's of a matter of such significance that rack-design competitions attract submissions from firms around the world. Changing bicycle design and ridership habits have rendered some older rack designs obsolete.
"I have this great slide show of some of the worst racks ever," Freedman said, recalling the laughter it scored at a New England Parking Council meeting.
Some racks are now being designed as functional art. In New York, a musician and avid cyclist, David Byrne, designed nine temporary bike racks that were installed in Manhattan and Brooklyn several years ago.
Closer to home, after hosting a design competition last year, with points given for playfulness and functionality, Cambridge is poised to install 40 to 50 of the five winning designs in Kendall Square. One of the delightful racks looks like an ocean wave. Others resemble a mathematical sine wave, a very tall hat rack, and a flower pot.
"What if there was no place to park your car when you got where you were going?" asked Watson, the executive director. "It's exactly the same for issue for bicyclists."
Meanwhile, even as racks are added, Jenna Finn, a publicist from South Boston, still can't bike to her gym in Downtown Crossing. She either walks or takes the bus.
"There's nowhere to park," she said.