Getting More Out of San Francisco’s Carved-up Curbs

3257230330_213c38d8e7_b.jpgCould cantilevered racks help San Francisco get more out of vacant curbside street space?

In a city strapped for bike parking and sidewalk space, there is an abundance of one commodity: small strips of curb that seem to be of use to no one. As the lifting of the bike injunction in San Francisco draws nearer, it might be time to consider how these carved-up spots of curbside space can serve a new function.

IMG_3749.jpgCould small strips of curb between driveways, like this one, be turned into parking for multiple bikes? Photo: Michael Rhodes

Such spaces between driveways range in size, but nearly every block in the city is littered with stretches of curb too small for even the smallest of cars to park. While pedestrian advocates may not be loathe to lose a car parking spot, this does create a zone of sidewalk that lacks a buffer from the roadway, which is normally formed by on-street parking. As Jane Jacobs describes in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, this buffer zone has an essential function for pedestrian comfort and safety

In lieu of engaging in a gargantuan political battle to begin removing driveways, the first step might be to find a better use for the curb space that’s left over. After all, unlike nearly anything else in San Francisco, no one else is using it.

Enter the Bike Arc, a curved bike rack that can actually cantilever bikes from the curb into the street. Part hanging system and part roll-up rack, it’s designed to save space and make a strong visual impression.

Jeff Selzer, co-founder of Bike Arc, said they’re intended as "a way to park a bike, but more like display it." The racks are intended to put bikes "in a place of honor," said Selzer. "A car gets an entire big spot that’s just that car’s spot. A bike gets a pole to lean up against, or a tree to lean up against. It doesn’t really have a spot that’s its spot to park." The bike doesn’t touch metal at all, except for the lock itself, and so is less likely to get incidentally scratched up.

The Bike Arc does not allow bike owners to lock their front wheel, which is undoubtedly a security drawback. The aesthetic value of the rack, however, means they’re more likely to be displayed in a more prominent – and thus secure – place.

"The security starts because the aesthetic is so pleasing that you’re willing to put it right front and center," said Selzer. Businesses "have a tendency to put bikes in the back corner," he said, but this design allows them to display the bike rack prominently, "as opposed to hiding it behind."

Marc Caswell, the program manager at the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, was more skeptical.

"The design,
while eye-catching, seems like a minimal amount of space saved at what
I can only imagine is a much higher cost," said Caswell. "In today’s
tough economic times, and the MTA’s laudable commitment to over 500
bike racks across the city in the coming year, the simple and
functional U-racks seem like the smart choice here in SF.  As long as
cyclists lock parallel to the U-racks on the sidewalk, there is little
pedestrian impediment at a very low cost." 

The Bike Arc racks undoubtedly cost more, with the the most basic model costing three times what the city’s standard inverted U rack generally runs. For cities looking to brighten up their commercial strips, however, Selzer thinks the Bike Arc is more economical. "They’re spending an obscene amount of money to put a bench in, or a new ornate light pole," said Selzer, noting that the Bike Arc might achieve the same goal while also serving an important function for bicyclists.

IMG_3758.jpgBikes, newspaper stands and utilities jostle while cars have exclusive use of curbside space. Photo: Michael Rhodes

In San Francisco, the real benefit of the Bike Arc rack could be to greater utilize the small strips of curb that are so prevalent on its blocks. On some busy commercial streets, the contrast is striking between the scarce sidewalk space for pedestrians, bike parking, trees, utilities and newspaper boxes and the abundant vacant pavement on the curbside between driveways.

Even a few feet of curb space could accommodate several bikes, and Selzer says a full-size car space can be converted to about 20 cantilevered bike parking spots, while leaving nearly the entire sidewalk for pedestrians. The remaining space between the racks and the traffic lane might even be landscaped, like in the Palo Alto Bike Arc installation pictured above.

In lieu of the Bike Arc, the city might find other creative ways to use the leftover curbside space for bikes, not only freeing up sidewalk space but also filling in some of the buffer zone between the sidewalk and the street, which is so often compromised in San Francisco. With the proper alignment, perpendicular to the curb, even the standard inverted U racks might be able to serve this purpose.

Best of all, making use of these vacant spaces for bike parking could afford great benefits to bikers and pedestrians without requiring a fight to remove existing parking spaces. Of course, with areas like Dolores Park nearly overwhelmed by bicycles on sunny weekend days, even that might be on the table.

  • This is a great idea Michael. There is definitely not enough bike parking in this city and its about time somebody put those little half-curbs to use.

  • gd

    it’s mostly a gimmick. first, the rack doesn’t save much space. Maybe a foot. Second, the security of the thing looks questionable. Third, it looks like to look the bike you have to stick your lock very close to your gears and near or through your chain, which just leads to getting grease on your lock, which then easily gets all over your hands and whatever else is stored near your lock when you carry it in your bag. Finally, it requires lifting the bike into an almost upright position, which is not practical for a lot of heavier or bigger bikes.

  • It looks nice. But you would quickly change your opinion after you tried to lift up a clunky bike like mine.

  • skeptical

    The bikes in that photo are completely unsecured– not only are they using a cable lock (doesn’t fly in SF or any other major city…), only the back wheel is secured. New and innovative (and thus, complicated) racks lead to confusion of how to use properly, and that leads to bikes getting stolen. Or, if cyclists don’t trust the thing/can’t figure out how to securely lock a bike to it, it isn’t worth a penny.

    As for the premise of the article, besides the obvious concerns of people entering/leaving the curb-cuts needing a turning radius (which is why there is no object within a few feet of any curb cut– I don’t think the MTA would allow something from the sidewalk to dangle off the curb onto the street, and I don’t doubt that car drivers would continue to try and squeeze under them, causing damage to both car, bike, and rack.

  • GD,
    I wanted to touch on a couple of points you made. By way of full disclosure I am the fellow quoted in the article above. You are correct that the foot print is not a huge benefit. It saves at most a little more than a foot and a half. That said sometimes that foot + can make the difference of being able to get a bike parked on the sidewalk or not. As to the lock being near the chain. That is indeed true. It is a fairly simple process to not have the lock come in contact with the chain, but I do want to acknowledge that that is a possibility.
    Finally you mention the impracticality of needing to “lift” a heavier bike into the Arc. Our intent in designing the Arc was to minimize this specific issue. With very little effort a 100 lb person had no problem parking a 50lb (electric assist) bike in the Arc. The slop of the arc just requires a gentle push and the bike is in place.

    I again want to acknowledge that this is not the “one perfect solution “to bike parking. It was our humble attempt to show the bicycle a little respect.

  • I’ve used these down in PA. They’re simple, easy, intuitive. And your bike looks great sitting there. Actually, it’s probably the overall best bike rack I’ve ever used in my life.

    They may cost three times what a U in the ground costs, but sometimes one nice rack is gonna be worth the cost of three crappy ones. Like mentioned in the article, the cost of a bike rack, even when three times higher than a really cheap one, is still insignificant when compared to the rest of the streetscape (lighting, parking, curbs, etc.)

  • Brian Madden

    Regardless of whether the Bike Arc is the right solution or not, I love the concept of using all those little curb sections as on-street bicycle parking. (frees up the sidewalk, provides the buffer, etc.)

    My only two worries are: (1) is there a motorcycle lobby or someone who would protest that, and (2) if anything goes into the street permanently, would that makes the streets harder to clean?

  • Loves two wheels, with or without motors

    Some additional info that may be useful to consider: The current DPT policy is to gradually convert the stub spots (too small for a car) into motorcycle/scooter spots instead of automatically painting them as red zones. This came about when the new $100 fines for sidewalk parking were introduced. The $100 fine applies to motorcycles as well as cars and there was pressure from the motorcycle community to allow sidewalk parking. This didn’t happen but DPT introduced the policy I mention above as a compromise. So, in addition to finding locking devices that would make good use of this sort of space there would need to be some accommodation between bikes and, well, bikes. Two wheels good four wheels bad!

  • These would be a huge waste of money–the last thing bicyclists need is another generation of front-wheel only bike racks. If you can’t get a u-lock through both the rack and the frame, then forget about it.

  • @Mike Fogel: glad to hear you’ve had a good experience with them, and I’d be interested in trying one out myself. I agree they are a great display rack, but I have to dispute your comment that somehow U-racks are ‘crappy’– they are cheap, impossible to cut through (if square-tube), they are intuitive, support your bike, can lock a frame and a wheel with a single lock, no lifting required- that seems all you need.

  • Wait a second. Those little curbs sections are actually perfectly usable for car parking — if you park your car on the sidewalk, crosswise. Which is practiced widely in this city. Well, maybe these bike racks would help curb that, because the DPT sure won’t….

  • On a more serious note… BART should put some of these in their cars.

  • marcos

    Anyone who doesn’t use locking wheel and seat hubs in San Francisco is asking to be robbed blind.

    I’ve always found it behoovey to lock my entire rear wheel to the post, and it appears that this design is perfect for that. Locking the rear wheel makes it difficult to saw through the frame or to find leverage to bust a U lock without rendering the bike unridable.


  • patrick

    I both advantages and disadvantages to this system

    1) Triple the cost is obviously a disadvantage
    2) Security, without being able to lock the front wheel there is a major security issue, also the locking area seems fairly thin could be easily cut through. It seems the security issues could be addressed with minor changes to the design.

    1) Looks cool
    2) from the picture at the top it looks like you can fit 3 bikes in the same space as 1 bike would take up when locked to a U stand.

  • Stir

    One important thing not being mentioned is the protection that this design affords the bicycle itself. While many bikes and owners are happy to have their bicycles banging around against other bikes, this design negates that sloppy situation and keeps each individual bike held on it’s own, without frame/paint/etc damage from sharing a u-style bike bar.

    Some will say, “it’s a city bike, expect it to be scratched up.” That is a personal opinion. Other people feel that they want their investments well cared for and this looks like a great solution in that respect!

  • ZA

    1. Three quick release saddles obtained in under 15 seconds: at least $10 fenced.

    2. 1-3 front wheels (praise be to quick releases) in under a minute: closer to $100 fenced.

    3. One rear rack removed with a multitool in under 3 minutes: $15 fenced.

    4. Three whole bikes removed in under 30 seconds with a chaincutter: at least $300 fenced.

    5. An example of a practical design that fulfills the beautiful ambitions of its designers: priceless.

    To paraphrase the immortal Major Kong, “Shucks, a guy could have a pretty good time in Vegas with all that stuff.”

  • ZA

    Beside my previous comment to illustrate the sort of rapacious violations any object of beauty should be ready for in the urban context (and I pick those allusions deliberately), let’s get into some brass tacks on this concept.

    1. Cost:benefit – the conventional downward-U or parking meter post can typically only support 2 bikes for that space properly. But in rush conditions, can lock up at least 6 bikes in the same space that the Bike Arc design proposes.

    2. Amenity – the Bike Arc is definitely attractive, and may be just the sort of feature a shop wants to buy and place to attract customers. But as the tree-side photo example offers, ideal though it may be to a place like the ice cream shop in Fairfax, that will also be removing improvisational seating space for customers – a net loss for that kind of business.

    3. Advocacy & Revenue – in the case of limited space, who should cede space first for the cyclist? The pedestrian, or the private automobile? In this regard, Portland’s conversion of car parking space to bike parking represents the greatest win-win-win…for the business seeking repeat customers, for the cyclist who needs security and proximity, for the pedestrian who prefers unimpeded access on their sidewalk. Yes, the private auto take it on the chin in this example, but how much more can they buy, or what premium do they offer the mass transit node, compared to the others?

  • ZA,

    You bring up a number of good points. Most of which are valid (the last one regarding car parking spots.I think you are a bit off base because many business will fight for a car parking spot infront of their location and would not want to loose it to bicycle or any other option other than a car.)

  • Opps sent before I was finished… Regarding your other points; The cost. You are correct that there are way cheaper options on the market. But when you compare the cost of a single car parking spot (typically about $20k + per spot) our costs are a bargain. Again we do not expect these to address every single bike parking situation. But we hope that communities will start to view bike parking with more respect than simply offering a poll to lean a bike against to lock to. You are indeed correct about being able to park 6 bikes in a spot designed for 2. But just because you can cram that many bikes in to a spot does not mean you should. As I stated our goal is to honor the bike and having a designated spot for a bicycle the same way we do for cars just made sense to us.
    As for the loss to a coffee shop or ice cream shop that puts an Arc (as viewed in the pic above) where someone may sit… Our hope is it will attract more cycling customers and be a way to show the community that the business is willing to offer alternatives to needing to drive a car to there establishment.

    ZA, We really appreciate this type of feedback as it moves the dialogue along in a positive way.

  • ZA

    @ Jeff Selzer –

    Thanks for your responses. I quite agree that many shopowners will fight to keep their parking spot, even if its a profit loss to keep it. One city in the UK that surveyed shops with car spaces in front (for a bus lane proposal) found strongest opposition from shop owners who parked their own car there. Many weren’t in the on-demand delivery business either. Unfortunately, other values like these can trump sound business economics.

    The Portland model still seems like the solution to strive for, though. Sidewalks should be for pedestrians and paying customers, the road for the conveyances that get them there.

    Additionally, you target those often-wasted spots in San Francisco as an ideal opportunity for the Bike Arc or something like it. You are quite right, but don’t be too surprised if a Smart Car group rallies against your proposal, as they’ve optimised for the same space, and San Franciscans love to dissent.

  • kris

    In regards to some of the earlier comments regarding the difficulty of lifting a bike into the bike arc, I would like to speak from personal experience that it is A LOT easier than it looks. I was a little hesitant at first, disbelieving that I would be able to do it, my bike would fall over, and inevitably everyone around would point and laugh. However, I was surprised to find that it is actually really simple and kind of fun! Now, I ride my bike to work every day and park in the umbrella arc. So, give it a try.



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