These days, free parking is taken as either a God-given right or a miracle, depending on where you live. Unfortunately for those of us who hate to pay (aka everyone), free car parking encourages short driving trips, increases the amount of money we spend on gasoline, contributes to climate change, worsens sprawl and all kinds of mean, nasty ugly things.
But free bicycle parking? That’s another matter altogether. Currently, most bicycle spots are free, if they are present at all. But traditional bicycle racks aren’t always secure, especially if all you have is a chain lock and are in a major city. A good U-lock will protect against all but the most wily crooks, but chain locks are frequently and easily broken by thieves with the right equipment. This becomes far more of an issue at large events, where criminals are likely to see a rack full of bikes as a black market cash cow. That is, assuming you can find a place to park your bike at all. For the Stewart/Colbert Rally to Restore Sanity on the National Mall last fall, they expected so many people that even the Washington Area Bicyclist Association’s bike ambassador couldn’t recommend biking there.
To solve this problem, several bicycle groups have started bicycle valets for major events. A bicycle valet is very similar to a regular valet – you hand over your bicycle and they give you a ticket. Volunteers then store the bicycle in a secure, monitored location. When you return your ticket, you get your bicycle back. Unlike traditional valets, the service is completely free to users and volunteers don’t accept tips. It solves both the security and the availability issues, and as the locations are often inside, keeps your bike dry if it rains. The Washington Area Bicyclist Association has conducted very successful bike valets for a number of events, with the most notable being the 2009 Inauguration, where they parked more than 1100 bicycles.
But as simple as bicycle valets are for the users, they’re a logistical headache. The group in charge of the bike valet must ensure the right bikes return to the right people, and decide what to do if some bikes aren’t picked up. Apparently this is a major problem when the event involves alcohol, like Independence Day on the Mall.
So what is a well-intentioned but low-resource bicycle advocacy group to do? The Rockville Bicycle Advisory Committee, which I volunteer with, found a middle ground for the city’s annual Hometown Holidays celebration. Hometown Holidays is a two-day celebration on Memorial Day weekend, with bands, art/craft vendors, restaurant trucks, non-profit tabling, and lots of kiddie rides. As the name suggests, it has a very small-town feeling even though we sometimes get some big-name headliners. It’s free and a lot of fun. As it’s bicycle-accessible for a large portion of residents and features a major bicycle event on Sunday morning, it seemed like the perfect opportunity for a bike valet. However, because we have a relatively small volunteer pool and several other events were also going on that weekend, we decided to do a supervised bicycle parking area instead. Basically, we expected bicyclists to lock up their bikes, but promised to keep an eye on them.
Despite the many advantages of supervised parking, we didn’t have very many takers. We saw a number of bicyclists leaving the festivities, who hadn’t seen us originally and found parking elsewhere. In fact, the majority of the bikes locked up in our area belonged to RBAC volunteers!
Nonetheless, it was still worth organizing. In addition to the racks, we also had a large table with city bicycle maps and schedules of our upcoming rides. We handed out a lot of information, engaged in a lot of conversation, and even recruited some new people for our mailing list. One family who stopped by even joined RBAC on Monday morning to participate in the Rockville Memorial Day parade! (I was at a friend’s wedding and so couldn’t participate myself.) Even if most people didn’t take advantage of the service, many noticed it for the future and became aware that there are people in Rockville dedicated to making bicycling safe, practical, and fun. I’m hoping that if we do it every year, it becomes as expected and relied upon as the parking garage is for cars.
In addition, I also had a lot of fun at Hometown Holidays. Our table backed up to the kiddie rides, and I was personally impressed at how low-carbon some of them were. Although most had generators, a few were completely human-powered! One was a globe-like structure with four seats that the operators manually spun. Another had its power generated from the users pushing back and forth on levers.
Across the way, the Fire Department decided to help kids beat the heat for free, by cranking up a fire hose as a very large sprinkler.
While free car parking is vastly underpriced, free, secure bicycle parking is often undervalued. I hope that as more events offer services like RBAC’s supervised parking and WABA’s bicycle valets, good bicycle parking and those who make it happen get the credit they deserve.