Over the last three decades, as bicycles have become a more commonly accepted means of getting around—especially in areas where they previously were a rare sight—the need to accommodate them when “docked” is more important. Sure, it’s usually perfectly reasonable to lock a bike to anything that’s already bolted to the ground: a parking meter, a rung in a fence, maybe even a tree if the caliper isn’t too great (but great enough). That, however, is not the intended function of these stationary objects, and bicyclists who use them may find that they’ve deposited their bike in an inopportune place, making it highly prone to slipping so that it lays flat on the ground, still affixed to the object, but blocking much of the path for pedestrians. The dedicated bike rack has justifiably become far more prevalent, and, as a result, an incentive has emerged to design them better. It’s virtually impossible to find the old municipal, lattice or vertical-slot al-slot bike racks of yesteryear. Not only are these bike racks easily movable when mostly free of bikes (they’re rarely bolted to the ground), but they can easily result in the damaging “wheel-bender” condition. The flimsy, rust-prone bars are comparatively easy to break or saw through, aiding the bike thieves. And the engineering doesn’t easily support the modern bike lock (most frequently the U-shape), another feature that has improved greatly, since the old-school bike chain is no match for modern cutters.
The thieves have gotten craftier, so the preventative tools must improve. Most modern bike racks today use significantly thicker metal and have bolts ensuring that they cannot move. And the designs have gotten a lot more creative. Sometimes they emphasize aesthetics over functionality, like the one in the lower left of this photo, outside a Christian Science Reading Room in Falls Church, Virginia.
It’s cute and colorful, but it’s hard to imagine it ever accommodating more than two bikes, because, unless the bikes can lean fully against the bike rack itself, they’re likely to fall over and run the risk of getting mangled.
A functional alternative is this option at Princeton University, which accommodates a number of bikes, much like the old movable racks of the 1980s.
But the triangular “perch” shape is friendlier to modern u-lock, keeping the bikes standing, and the bolts at the foundation keep it secured to the sturdy old college building itself. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea aesthetically, and I have my suspicions that the metal tubing in those triangles isn’t all that hard to saw through. But it’s better than the old municipal racks, and security is probably strong enough at Princeton that a thief wouldn’t be able to invade the bike rack in the time it takes to cut the metal.
But here’s a bike rack in Alexandria, Virginia that leaves me scratching my head.
Is it aesthetic or functional? Or neither? It’s clearly secure, so at least it has that going for it. But it can’t accommodate more than two bikes easily. And it’s not broad enough to stabilize the bike—that is, a bike can’t necessarily prop up against it with a u-lock and remain standing. And bikes that tip onto a horizontal position are more prone to damage from passersby, and maybe even to theft. After all, what else is visible in either loop of the bike rack than two old rusty locking devices that apparently failed to do their jobs? I’ll concede that the shortcomings may be the locks themselves, rather than the bike rack. But the end result, if you’re creative like me, is that the bike manages to look like an abstract human with two arms, hands on hips, a bike lock and a bike chain hooped through. It’s a miniature urban cowboy carrying two different types of lassos. He just needs a Stetson. And if that’s what it is, functional or not, it’s more winsome than the bicycle-shaped bike rack outside the Christian Science Reading Room. At least in this day and age we get to pick our poison.