Why Bike Racks Matter to Santa Monica's Buy Local Efforts

The humble bike rack matters, if the city is really serious about its campaign.

Santa Monica has embarked on a “Buy Local” campaign, and by the time you read this, it will have been underscored by Saturday's and related Buy Local Day events. There are a number of benefits to buying local, and they're not just the obvious economic benefits of retaining more money in our local economy. When residents shop at local businesses, it also cuts down on congestion, reduces emissions and encourages investment in our own community.

However, there is something currently missing from efforts to encourage buying local. That is dedicated, secure bike parking at the majority of local businesses.

Bicycling traffic can be a boon to business, and is perfectly suited to shopping and dining locally. Cars take up far more real estate than any other mode of travel, thus effectively capping growth potential on a street grid of finite space. Being able to make trips by walking is ideal, but walking range is rather limited. Everywhere in Santa Monica is walkable to some destinations, but many residents cannot reach many popular businesses on foot. Buses are great but do not appeal to everyone, particularly when service frequency is low and they so often run behind schedule. On a bike, however, any point in the city is reachable in about 20 minutes—or often less.

To encourage business growth through bicycling, Long Beach and the City of Los Angeles have started installing what are called at select locations. It is a type of facility made popular in Portland, Ore., where a single on-street car space is replaced with permanent bike racks housing up to 10 bikes. It gives plenty of space for bike customers and de-clutters sidewalk space. Some businesses in Portland were skeptical of losing a little car parking at first, but when early adopters started cashing in on the benefits of higher turnover, the list of businesses requesting them started lining up.

It’s not well-known, but Santa Monica was actually the first city in the Southern California region to implement this idea, for a space serving 's facility. There was no fanfare or ribbon-cutting celebrating its installation, like at the first facilities in L.A. and Long Beach.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for giving people down on their luck world-class infrastructure for parking their bikes. But shouldn’t the cyclists actually paying into the local economy have a better recourse than haphazardly attaching their bikes to parking meters, fences and electrical utilities? The city has been flirting with the idea of doing a bike corral in a business district, doing a temporary one for the Library Ale House on Friday nights, but it is unclear if any permanent facility may come of it.

Accommodating growth for customers who drive is incredibly expensive for businesses because of the substantial land use and cost of car-parking infrastructure. Bike parking, on the other hand, takes up far less room and costs far less, both in terms of installation and maintenance. For a business without the means to build bigger lots for cars, attracting customers to come by bike is one of the most cost-effective ways to grow business traffic, not to mention reducing roadway traffic.

However, many local businesses without their own lots depend on the city's parking management to provide their parking. Unfortunately, the lack of priority and presence of bureaucratic red tape have kept many businesses from getting racks installed for years after multiple requests. Businesses cannot install racks on public property themselves and are often powerless to improve access for their cycling clientele.

Trips by bike are growing, according to the limited data collection available from large employers in the city, but efforts to encourage shopping by bike in Santa Monica are inconsistent. That ranges from world-class accommodation like our excellent bike valet service at the Sunday farmers market and select events, to the outright non-existent and abysmal accommodation in the majority of the city.

In recent months, the City of Santa Monica has been putting in quite a few new bike racks, but their placement does not always feel like they're going where there is the greatest need or demand. A vacant bank building may get a few racks while a thriving business practically begging for bike parking is left out of the equation.

It’s also readily apparent that bike-rack placement is strongly favored to downtown and around , while other districts and neighborhoods often get nothing at all. Even sites along the incredibly popular beach bike path typically have insufficient bike parking. Good luck trying to find a single bike rack anywhere on Pico Blvd. The few bike racks on Main St. are on blocks so overwhelmed with steady bike traffic that it’s often nearly impossible to find one that is not already taken. For that matter, on Main, it's tough to even find a tree or another solid object that is not already populated with attached bikes. You can valet your car right in front of , but cyclists often walk down the block to attach their bike to a church parking-lot fence or even loop a look around a nearby utility power-line cable.

Typically, cyclists are forced to scrounge around for some unintended object or place to lock a bike. Cyclists kneel down to hook a U-lock under the parking-restrictions sign of a parking meter, or wrap a flimsy and easily-cut coil around a tree or light pole. When businesses subject cyclists to this sort of treatment, intended or not, they may as well have a big sign in the window reading, “Shoppers on bikes not welcome! Come back when you have a car!”

The lack of consistency in bike-rack availability is not just an inconvenience for cyclists, it encourages the use of weaker but more flexible locking methods, and the attachment to less secure objects never intended for such use. Police are trying to tackle a growing epidemic of bike theft, but I think that will be a losing battle if efforts to provide secure and convenient bike parking continue to lag so far behind the number of new bikes popping up.

Some shops that have private lots with racks often install them incorrectly or use designs that are insecure. The latest Los Angeles Police Department literature on preventing bike theft advises against using some types of racks at all because of their low security. That includes racks that don't allow you to lock the bike frame—only the wheel, which can be easily removed. The wheel rack at the is a double offense: It's placed out of sight and is too small to fit even an adult road bike wheel.

Not everything is bad news. As I mentioned, new racks have been springing up on some blocks around downtown. There are even large indoor for Santa Monica Place parking garages 7 and 8 next year. The bike valet is great and continues to be a hit when it is offered. The hundreds of bikes parked every Sunday on Main St. in the spaces normally occupied by a handful of cars should be proof that if you accommodate bikes, people will ride them. And it’s a net gain for our local economy and our environment.

Hopefully the in-the-works will put the city to work quickly to remedy many of the problems with its bike-parking strategy or lack of strategy. But it should not take an extensive planning process to get a simple bike rack installed at a business that requested one three years ago. If Santa Monica wants to get really serious about promoting buy local, facilitating infrastructure for bicycling needs to become a real priority. People who feel they can safely ride a bike to a local shop, and know that they will have a secure space for their bike when they get there, are going to do more local shopping—with or without expos, fancy posters and feel-good messaging.

John May 09, 2011 at 06:09 PM
Santa Monica, a city that is only 3 miles x 3 miles in size and essentially flat, is remarkably unsupportive of bike riding, either for exercise or for commuting. The bike path along the beach, for example, is unenforced -- pedestrians and powered vehicles routinely create dangerous situations by blocking the bikeway -- and marred by signage and planning gaffes. Although some streets have bike lanes, they usually end abruptly short of any destination, bikes are not isolated from traffic, and curb extensions at a growing number of intersections force bikes into motor traffic. As to the particular issue of bike parking, the city's relentless passion for raising vehicle parking revenues is resulting in the removal of the parking meters that have provided secure bike parking all around town, so more bike racks are welcome, although some of the locations seem peculiarly unrelated to need -- that a much needed & used bike rack in front of Starbucks at Main & Hill that was removed during sidewalk repairs more than 2 years ago still has not been replaced is a measure of high a value the city places on bikes. In any case, safer bike lanes that extend throughout the town should take spending priority; if people are afraid to use their bikes in the street the question of the availability of bike parking spots is moot.
John May 09, 2011 at 06:09 PM
As for "buy local," it is largely an effort to increase tax revenues; there is no effort to distinguish genuinely local businesses from national chains that happen to rent space here; the campaign mainly encourages buying from national brand outlets here instead of the same national brand stores in other parts of L.A.


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