Let’s pretend, for a moment, that you’re commuting via bicycle from Center City to South Philly. Midway through the trip, you remember that you need to grab something from CVS. You roll up to the location at 21st and South, or the one at 11th and Washington, or the one at 10th and Reed, and look for a place to park.
What do you find? Not any standard bike racks, surely — there are few if any inverted Us in sight. Instead, you’re expected to lock your ride to a row of short metal hoops that don’t even rise high enough off the ground to reach a bike frame. It’s a frustrating, not to mention less-than-secure, setup, and it likely explains why these racks so often sit empty.
In fact, these kinds of racks are disallowed in the city, according to standards set by the Philadelphia Streets Department. Here’s how the department’s Bike Rack Installation Guide characterizes the bike parking found outside several CVS locations in Philly:
Because the bike rack structure is short, it cannot support an upright bicycle in two places. Due to its low-to-the-ground design, it does not enable a bicycle’s frame and at least one wheel to be locked to it. Additionally, this bike rack is a trip hazard for pedestrians.
All private property owners who wish to have bike racks near their businesses (or, in rare cases, their homes) must procure and install the racks on their own time and dime. Before that can happen, though, they must submit an application for approval with the Streets Department. The racks described in these applications must meet a number of requirements that take into account such factors as design, size and placement.
According to Streets Department Commissioner David Perri, the biggest details to look out for include making sure each rack is ground-supported (which limits height) and that the design doesn’t pose a threat to public safety (children, in particular, like to climb on the more whimsical-looking racks). Beyond that, Streets considers the following criteria: that the rack in question doesn’t block fire hydrants, parking spaces for cars, and the public right of way in general; that digging the foundation won’t run into any underground infrastructure; that the rack support a bike frame upright in two places, prevent the wheel of a locked bike from tipping over, and fit the frame and one wheel in a standard U-lock; that the material be resistant to destruction or disassembly from handheld tools; and that the paint be resistant to rust.
Streets has received applications for a total of 85 bike racks since September 2014, according to a department spokesperson. However, the City does not track how many of those were actually installed, and Streets declined to say how many applications got rejected in the same period of time.
Most of the racks you see around city streets — inverted Us, large hoops or lollipops — are considered “standard,” and only need to pass muster with the Streets Department. Sometimes, though, an applicant will opt for a bike rack that deviates from the “standard” style. These are considered “art” or “sculptural” racks, and they have a tougher bar to clear.
“When you get something unique, you’re gonna need to get engineering involved,” Perri says.
Before getting approval from the Streets Department, art racks must undergo a review from the Philadelphia Art Commission. Then, on a case-by-case basis, Streets or an independent engineer must approve the design. (Once a certain design — a peace sign, for instance — gets the OK, future racks with the same specs needn’t go through the process again.)
“Beyond just being an amenity for bicyclists, art racks can be an attraction of their own on a city street,” Perri says. “We’re perfectly fine with folks that propose unique designs. It helps give neighborhoods and commercial strips their own character and their own individual identity.”
In Philadelphia, one is most likely to find art racks around the Northern Liberties or Fishtown neighborhoods. Frankford Avenue, specifically, plays host to all sorts of art racks. Credit this to the New Kensington Community Development Corporation (NKCDC), which has used specially designed bike racks in its effort to brand Frankford as an arts corridor. Starting in 2007, it applied for funding to obtain and install zany, colorful or interesting-looking racks up and down the avenue.
“As cycling becomes more and more prominent and more of a cultural movement, how do we integrate the arts community and the cycling community together?” says Sam Thomas, commercial corridor coordinator for NKCDC. “The art racks became the most obvious way to do that.”
“We’re learning from past designs that you have to be able to fit U-locks.”
NKCDC owns a number of properties up and down Frankford Avenue, many of which sport bike racks out front. The development corporation also works with private businesses to coordinate the installation and placement of bike parking, much of it designed by local artists.
“It’s something that people ask us about a lot,” Thomas says. “When I go out and talk to folks [to encourage installing bike racks], they always go, ‘Well, what about the art racks?’ I think the standard inverted Us people are OK with, but really people love the art racks, and the feedback we’ve gotten about them has been overwhelmingly positive.”
In the early stages of NKCDC’s program — when it was “kind of a pilot thing,” as Thomas puts it — a number of bike racks went up that made people scratch their heads. These didn’t see much use. Thomas recalls one in particular that couldn’t fit a U-lock, which essentially defeats the purpose of outdoor bike parking in the first place. After all, inverted Us have an intuitive design, even if they aren’t fun to look at.
“Utility-wise, we’re learning from past designs that you have to be able to fit U-locks,” Thomas says. The troublesome rack, which stood outside the thrift store Circle Thrift at Frankford and Dauphin Street, has since been removed.
However, NKCDC can’t respond to every complaint about a bike rack with removal or design changes. It simply doesn’t have the money left over from initial rounds of funding.
“We obviously don’t want to build something that people can’t use,” Thomas says. He adds that right now, there are no plans for installing new bike racks — something else contingent on future funding.
So what happens when a bad design slips through? A cursory look at several examples of art racks around the city reveals that their designs don’t always meet Streets Department criteria. The cactus-shaped racks outside Taco Riendo, a popular Mexican restaurant at 5th and Thompson streets, arguably fail to support a bike frame in two places due to appendages that jut out in different directions. Over on Frankford Avenue just south of Berks Street, racks in the shape of abstract chairs don’t offer any intuitive way to securely fit a U-lock around a bike frame and wheel.
You can even find schoolyard-style bike parking, a standard design explicitly prohibited in the Streets Department’s Bike Rack Installation Guide, in places ranging from the Little Berlin art space in Kensington to the Acme supermarket at 10th and Reed.
“If the applicant gets a permit from us for one type of rack and then puts something else in, we’re gonna hold them accountable for making that switch and for not following the instructions,” says Perri, the Streets Department commissioner. “If it doesn’t meet the standards, then it’s subject to being removed by the Streets Department and confiscated.”
Where does that leave CVS? A spokesperson for the company did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but a manager at one CVS location in Philadelphia did open up about the less-than-ideal bike parking outside his store.
“I get quite a few complaints about that bike rack,” he says, speaking anonymously due to the company’s media policy. He explains that CVS racks adhere to an official model and directs questions about the process to corporate. When I inform him about the Streets Department’s policies, he sounds unsurprised. “I don’t know why they haven’t been taken out,” he says of the bike racks.
Despite this, and the racks’ apparent unpopularity, the employee says no one from the City has contacted him about it. “I haven’t had any issues with the Streets Department,” he says.
Graphic by Elliott Lamborn