I keep coming back to the fact that the system (UK/US) is built for cars, and as hard as you try to switch to bikes it ends in tears.
What bikes give us
All of our modern infrastructure is built around cars. Drive thrus, parking lots, highways - all cars.
Bikes are amazing though. Simply by travelling on one we become healthier.
It can be a superpower beyond just "exercise", having been shown to abate Parkinsons tremors, boost your immune system and rewire your brain for enhanced cognitive load.
This is being written from the perspective of someone who cycles obsessively, but I do it not for the caloric burn. I got into cycling because it freed my mind. Riding a bike is meditation for me. I work out the hardest problems and rebalance the most challenging perspectives when I'm in the saddle.
Riding a bike, by nature is good for the environment. Every journey is a journey that could have been taken by car. Not only are you not spending the fuel/energy in a car but you are reducing the traffic on the road by not taking a car.
Side note: You can commute to Google from my apartment quicker by bike than by car simply because you ride past the cars idling in traffic.
And Ebikes? Well don't even get me started on ebikes. These gizmo's offer us the opportunity to reshape transport and use electricity (can be extremely low emission). So for the commuter/traveller who doesn't want lycra up or to put in an ounce of sweat you can still slice through the street at a record pace.
Ebikes cover the kids use case, the luggage use case, the commuter use case.
If you have never seen one, and are really sceptical - I was too, until I watched this video.
The problem no-one is talking about - locking it up
Yes you get on a bike, yes you ride on a great road, but parking a bike is an experience so full of friction that only the most dedicated cyclists do it regularly.
Bikes optimise for weight - the lighter the bike & rider = the easier the ride. Locks have an inverse relationship, the heavier a lock is the safer it is. To park your bike safely you lose all performance gains. And then after all of that the majority of locks are broken into.
“That never happens" you might say. My building has been broken into 6 times in the past 4 months and countless bikes have been stolen. Building management urged us all to use D or U locks, while comfortably forgetting that the criminals repeatedly cut through the D & U locks used to store our bikes.
On average, over 188,500 bicycle thefts are reported stolen each year in the United States, a statistic that in itself is staggering when one also considers the number of bicycle thefts that go unreported.
To compare - There were an estimated 748,841 vehicle thefts in the United States in 2018.
There are 221.7 million licensed drivers in the US and 273.6 million registered vehicles while only 45 million Americans make a trip by bike each year.
Thats about 5x drivers and 4x thefts when compared so loosely proportional, however I believe if you were to compare thefts to trips the results would show a staggering gap between the safety we afford cars that we do not bikes (poor modelling to say this without facts, I know).
I am not actually making a case for bikes over cars, I'm happy to go into that on another day.
I'm making a case that mass transit by bike is coming, we can't stop it. It is better in almost every way, but to accelerate it, to make it amazing - we need to address the bike locking issue.
Current bike locking is lazy planning - it puts onus of locking up on owner. Bikes are not cars, it makes no sense to carry a lock with you.
Bikes are not cars, we need to appreciate that they are much better and redesign our systems accordingly.
The other thing to bear in mind is that as we switch towards a bike first future, the Overton window on what is an acceptable bike cost, shifts.
You can spend more on a bike that has more utility & functionality. If you're commuting everyday, it makes sense to upgrade your wheels, your saddle, your frame all to make it more comfortable.
With more spending on a bike, the need for better locking infrastructure also increases!
Let's take a look at some of the existing ways in which bike infrastructure is currently built around the world to lock/store bikes.
Note that, I don't think simply copying the Netherlands model will suffice in the US. Culturally we need to move towards Nordic bike culture before Nordic bike locking solutions will work.
Standard locking (or as I like to call it, 'the lazy lock')
Every city planners dream is to be tasked with adding bike locking that is some variation of this:
Much like the lockers we had in school, only bigger.
These are really an augmentation on the standard locking racks, but with added benefit of a locked cage around it, usually controlled by membership.
I just made this name up to encompass a number of new age locking station technology, like the underground vending machine used in Japan or the bluetooth enabled locking arm called Bikeep
Can we design a better one?
I'm under no delusions that I am a designer, but I love solving problems so I think we can do better.
If you're reading this and you like what I'm thinking/drawing - let me know and feel free to take my designs. This will never work if gate keep the IP. We need a new locking network. Many of the new solutions are marginally better, but unless they are available everywhere you cycle - the whole system breaks like a weak chain link.
In researching this problem I found myself on page 15 of google results pouring through every design that has every been conceived and I came across a number of motorbike locking devices that I think could be used/added to bike locking to make it stronger.
That may sound obvious or heavy handed, but here's the key - motor bike locking stations do the majority of the security.
These devices can hold an extra strong chain for locking but the rider simply needs a locking nut and key no bigger than an inch of dimes.
Can you imagine if all you needed to carry to lock a bike was an inch of dimes?
If we could build a bike locking station where you only need to carry a locking nut, we can start to totally transform the attractiveness of riding your bike everywhere!
What might a mass appeal, hyper useful bike locking station look like?
If we can reduce the lock to a roll of dimes, we need to design a structure that would hold the bike that a chain could then secure.
Given that the purpose of the structure itself is to secure the bike, let's throw out the old way of thinking about locking a bike and go whole hog. Can the new structure fully secure a bike and its parts?
In this design we could have 2 sheets of metal with a series of spike that slide together to accommodate any size of bike. These could be locked through the middle.
The handle bars wouldn't fit right, the spikes would be a lawsuit waiting to happen, the ground space needed is huge and this uses a lot of metal.
The way handle bars fit in a bike currently could be redesigned so that they can easily pop off and turn to fit a new locking station.
I thought about this for a while. For such marginal gains this would create too much friction. Who would install the new mechanism?
Thinking about the first idea, can we still take a sandwich metal frame/sheet structure but make it better?
How about cutting a series of holes in it to lighten it? You could add a larger hole area for the handlebars. You could put a wheel brace on one side to whole the bike steady. You could hinge one or both sides to make access and sizing easier.
With a general design agreement on structure and the chain & locking nut pieces added, stores, towns and states could easily make these on brand or more visually appealing.
Are my designs perfect? Oh hell no. Am I close to being right, I think so.
Here's what I would propose next
For a long time, I think the bike companies have been torn as to whether to care. On one hand more people would buy bikes if they were easier to use every day, but on the other hand - replacing stolen bikes might be big business for them.
I think we have an opportunity to skip this dilemma with ebikes - the ebike manufacturers have to care about bike security. More secure ebikes will lead to better overall adoption.
It would be great to see a group of bike manufacturers run a design competition for a better locking network. Hell you could make it a reality TV show - I'd watch a hidden camera show where would be thieves try and break into new age bike locks (yes Covid lockdown has lowered the bar for acceptable entertainment).
Winning designs could be mass produced and then gifted to the towns these companies operate in or the markets they most want to grow into.
If I owned an in-person local business I would create and install one, and let every cycling club in the area know that we are totally bike safe for visitors.
A few missing pieces
There are a few missing pieces to this puzzle that I didn't cover. Some of them lead to a debate I didn't want to spend this writing engaging with but for this to all work we would need to look at:
While this might feel very niche, I have spent months thinking about how much money, time and space is wasted on products that are not fit for purpose in this space.
I truly believe we can reshape the way we interact with out local communities for the better with bikes. I say this not as some idealogical dictator but as a person who can see problems that need solving and I wrote this to (a) stop the conversation in my mind so `I can focus on other problems and (b) to collaborate with others who are considering how the world might need to look for us to live easier, healthier and more affordable lives.
I stand by my words, we can innovate on bikes every which way, but without the nodes of the bike transport network being secure we will never fully reach bike transport viability.
As always - I am fully open to the serendipity that writing brings - feel free to ping me if you want to explore these ideas and more!