Cities Need More Flexiblity about Bike Parking


Bike parked on a trash can in Dinkytown.

Bike racks might not seem like much. And, really, they’re not. Bike racks are simply a small piece of metal embedded into the ground.

But they’re a small important part of the picture, one step toward changing our cities. Honestly, most of the time, parking your bike is pretty easy. There is usually a street sign nearby, and almost always when I ride my bicycle somewhere, I get “rock star parking” right in front of the door.

But sometimes, it’s difficult. And that’s doubly so if there’s an event going on, when every pole or tree or fence seems to collect bicycles like box-elder bugs on a porch in September. Then you need bike racks, and having ample bike parking is very nice indeed.

But more than that, bike racks represent a welcome mat for bicycling in the city. So often, bicyclists have to travel through an inhospitable environment, being honked at by cars, making their own path along the sidewalk, waving their arms like mad-men trying to get through an intersection. When, at the end of the journey, you have to lock your bike to a small tree or gas meter or someone’s private fence, it’s a little extra indignity that reinforces bicycles as something alien, something unwanted, a nuisance.

Sometimes, having a bike rack to lock to can make things just a little bit better.


Twin Cities’ Cost Share Programs


Actual normal bike parking on Hennepin Avenue downtown.

That’s why it’s great that both Minneapolis and Saint Paul have city-wide cost-share programs, where businesses can sign up to have a bike rack installed and the city will put one in, and pay for half of it. The program has been pretty successful, at least in Minneapolis.

In Saint Paul, where I live, the bike-rack process has been more frustrating. I’ve personally tried to get a few different businesses to get bike racks from the city. For example, I’ve talked to one of my favorite bars downtown, and a few of the rack-less coffee shops I frequent. In all cases, the business owner was perfectly willing to pay for the rack.

Instead, the problem has been that the city is very picky about where it will install one. A colleague of mine works for the Twin Cities’ largest bike rack company, and described the process in Saint Paul as “impossible,” that “the problem is that the ‘envelopes’ are too big [and] the clearances they’ve defined are pretty nuts.” That’s been my experience, too. Apparently, in front of my two favorite coffee shops in the city, there’s no room for a bike rack…

I get the trade-offs. I can imagine situations where having a bike rack on the sidewalk might make it a bit more difficult for bus boarding. Likewise, in communication with the St Paul engineer in charge of the program, he raised the issue of snow removal. OK…


Bike parked on newsracks in South Minneapolis.

Meanwhile, the city has been very lax about enforcing news rack ordinances. And more importantly, bikes aren’t going away. Even if there aren’t racks around, people are still going to ride their bicycles around the city, and lock them to things. They’ll be locked to street signs, gas meters, fences, trees, construction signs, other bikes, tree guards, or anything else you can conceivably wrap your U-lock around. Ignoring the problem of bike parking doesn’t improve the sidewalks, it just turns the city into one big free-for-all. Is that what we want?

The frustrating thing about the bike rack problem is that, compared to just about anything ever found in a city budget, bicycle parking is extraordinarily cheap. At most, it only takes a few hundred dollars, to buy and install a bike rack and put it in front of your business. Quite often, it’s far less than that, particularly since one bike rack will last for many decades. Compared to almost anything, bike parking costs amount  to an insignificant rounding error. That’s why its so frustrating when you see big city projects costing millions of dollars — or in the case of the Central Corridor Light Rail, over a billion — and you find people still having to park their bicycles four feet up on a parking lot fence.

In closing, here are many pictures of bikes locked to random things. We can do better than this.

[H/t to my friend Jeff for some of these pics.]


Millions of dollars of sidewalk improvements later, a bike parked to a brand new tree on University Avenue.


Post-improved University Avenue again, only a fence this time.


Bike parked by the St Paul Farmer’s Market.


Bikes parked on Grand Avenue, right by the commercial node at Snelling.


Bike parked at Target Field.


Bike parked to a gas meter on Selby Avenue in Saint Paul.


I don’t even know what this bike is parked to…

19 thoughts on “Cities Need More Flexiblity about Bike Parking

  1. Jeff Klein

    Ok, I wouldn’t mind more bike parking at all. I do think that if you biked to your destination, you shouldn’t have to then walk a block (unlike if you drive your car, in which case you very much deserve it). Having said that, many of these imaginative parking jobs are more about bike hipsters being cute than anything else. I have not to this day after seven years of exclusive bike commuting not been able to find a sign post within a block of my destination, nor have I done anything so absurd as those examples.

  2. Ben

    Re: the bikes along the fence at Target Center on the way to Target Field – no one wants to lock bikes there, but there aren’t many options. And instead of putting in a bike rack, the management bought signs saying “do not lock bikes to fence” and put them every few feet. Again, I hate locking my bike there – but as I utilize the LifeTime fitness several times a week I don’t have many close options, especially if there’s a Twins Game. Same thing on Nicollet Mall – the lack of bike racks is very frustrating.

    1. Kate

      If you are headed to Target Field, they actually do provide quite a bit of bike parking that isn’t always full, even when a game is occuring. However, Ben is right. If you are headed to any other event in that same area, there isn’t much available bike parking.

  3. Colin

    The lack of a rack at Cahoot’s is borderline criminal. Even more so with the city planning bike lanes on Snelling. That goes for Nina’s, too, for that matter. And the Espresso Royale on Fairview come to think if it.

    Semi-related, Snelby is a fine contraction. One that many of us near Snelby use. Ignore the haters. Furthermore…Snelby.

  4. hokan

    Minneapolis has more bike parking, per capita, than any other large city. I believe that has a lot to do with our high bike mode share. If you are biking for basic transportation, you need to be able to securely park when you get to your destination.

    More bike parking (well placed) may well bring more bike riders.

    1. Randall

      This “#1” has a lot more to do with the thousands of racks on the U of M campus than racks in the city. Places like PDX, NYC, and SF did’t even report a count on that survey you’re referring to which was in 2007.

      1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

        and these days, the “thousands of racks” at the U are all full. it is very common occurrence to not be able to find anywhere to park your bike on the East Bank.

  5. minneapolisite

    Hokan nailed it. I mean really, if suburban shopping malls didn’t go with their hugely over-projected amount of parking (to accommodate a few days of peak Christmas shopping every year) would people in even car-dependent areas be as likely to go places as often if they had doubts about whether or not there will be a spot? Just as decent bike parking has helped contribute to a decent mode share for cycling we can see long ago that for cars to be used almost exclusively there needs to be guaranteed available parking spots. It’s funny that when demand for tons of (car) parking are made they aren’t met with “no car parking” signs, but instead more parking than they’ll need just about ever. Those signs saying “no bike parking” signal a much greater need for bike parking than what is being offered.

    I’ve had instances where I’ve had some trouble figuring out where/how to park my bike (on University I had to lock up to a tree to go to Turf Club) and in fact this very evening I skipped Caffetto because despite their copious amount (relatively) of bike racks the couple of spaces available would’ve been too difficult to finagle. Places like this show that if you build it the demand will follow, especially in the context of a dense, destination rich urban neighborhood.

    As for St Paul, they should just forget about bike racks based on what Bill wrote. Since super-wide sidewalks are few and far between anywhere the city should go the on-street bike corral route. No need to meet silly unrealistic sidewalk space: bike corrals can be placed on the both ends of many existing strips of on-street parking where visibility prevents additional parking spaces and without taking away a single parking spot.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      yeah, bike corrals are definitely a solution. but actually building a few of them is going to take a bit of courage, which I’m not seeing much of from business owners yet.

  6. Janne

    I think one of the most important things about bike parking is related to the “welcome mat” you describe — but in a slight twise, it’s the “biking is normal” message.

    When bike-skeptical people see enough normal-looking people (you know, in dress clothes, or a sundress, or a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, or evey carrying something pratical like groceries or a briefcase), they realize, “Oh, I guess normal people ride bikes, too. Maybe I should try it someday.”

    Better yet, if they see people they know — neighbors, other people from their apartment building, co-workers — doing it, it becomes, “Billy rides a bike to work, and he’s plenty professional (and not smelly) when he gets here. Maybe I’ll ask him how he does it. OR Maybe I’ll have to try it and save $4 on parking.”

    1. Marc

      Thanks. This message needs to be repeated, again and again, until our elected leaders and the business community endorse the idea that bicycles can be general-purpose transportation for all. Show that “normal” people want to leave their cars at home when they can, and that “normal” people will bike in city traffic, and then we will change the infrastructure so that biking is the easier choice.

  7. Gary

    Great article. I have found the same problems in St Paul, so for this reason as well as no bike lanes, no sharrows no cycle tracks in St Paul and the fact the city doesn’t maintain or plow the trails making them impossible to use for commuting I actually just quit riding in St Paul. After 20 years of riding and commuting everyday in other much more cycling friendly cities St Paul finally took the fight out of me. It’s that bad. St Paul has so much potential but I truly don’t believe the will is there at city hall or among the people in that city. These nanny state government regulations need to go. Let people be free to ride and park their bikes. Maybe someday St Paul will finally get it and be cool?

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