Most of us are familiar with park-and-ride facilities: large parking lots surrounding transit stops. They generally expand the effective “reach” of a transit stop by allowing people to combine automobiles and transit in a single trip. Yet they also have several disadvantages, including negative visual impacts, forgone revenue from other uses of the space, and the cost of the facilities themselves.

There is a better way. In contrast to park-and-rides, “bike-and-ride” facilities are much more cost effective and have fewer negative impacts. For example, a structured park-and-ride facility planned for Northgate in Seattle is estimated to cost $30,000 per parking stall. Compare that with a recent federal grant for secure bicycle parking in the Seattle area at a cost of roughly $4,400 per bike stall.  And of course, park-and-rides encourage people to drive, which results in a variety of negative health, safety, and environmental consequences.

In the Northwest, we have already developed some forms of bike-and-ride, but there is still much more we can do. Let’s take a look at some of the ways we can integrate bicycles and transit.

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  • Bike parking

    Bike parking bears the strongest similarity to park-and-rides. These relatively simple facilities help potential transit riders access stops. Instead of large and expensive parking structures, users can park bicycles in much smaller storage facilities. The simplest form of bike parking is the humble bike rack.

    bike rack at Portland's aerial tram

    steven vance, flickr

    Bike racks are inexpensive to install, which allows public agencies to deploy lots of them at little cost. It’s quick and easy to lock your bike to them, which is great if you are trying to get to your stop on time. The main disadvantage is the risk of theft.

    A step up from bike racks are protected bike storage facilities. These have the advantage of being secure against theft. They also are often covered, which bike racks are usually not. The current state of the art for individual bike lockers is electronic cards that make it easier for casual users to rent a locker for short periods and enable the same locker to serve multiple different people throughout the day. Here’s a short video from StreetFilms showcasing electronic bike parking:

    In other places where bicycle storage is in heavy demand but space is at a premium bike storage facilities are sometimes secured by an attendant. Here’s an example from a train station in Hoorn, a town of 70,000 people in the Netherlands:

    Bike storage at Netherlands train station

    livewombat, flickr

    Unlike electronic lockers, bicycles on racks can be secured much closer to each other. Such facilities often have a coded card system whereby one receives one card of a particular color or pattern to go with the bike and another to present when retrieving it. The cost of an attendant is mitigated by having many bike spaces per attendant.

    Bikes on transit

    Of course, bike parking constitutes just one version of integrating bicycles and transit. Another form of bike-and-ride involves bringing bicycles onto transit vehicles themselves. Buses that carry bikes typically use racks mounted on the front of the coach and are often designed to hold up to three bicycles.

    Here’s a King County Metro bus advertising bike racks on the system’s buses.

    Ad for bike racks on King County buses.

    Oran Viriyincy, flickr

    One disadvantage of external bike racks is that bikes are exposed to the elements and can pick up dirt and grit from the road. Also these front-mounted bike racks are (and probably always will be) limited to three bikes. That creates some uncertainty about whether a prospective ride will be able to obtain a bike space and may limit the number of people willing to bring their bikes to the bus stop. Having to wait for the next bus owing to lack of rack space is an annoyance many would rather do without.

    Rail vehicles tend to have more bike storage space. In the Portland and Seattle metro areas, light rail cars come equipped with hooks so bikes can hang without the traveler needing to hold onto them. Portland has four racks per car and Seattle’s Central Link Light Rail has two per car.

    Bike rack on Portland light rail

    Atomic Taco, flickr

    When the space for bikes fills up, light rail riding cyclists are allowed to hold their bicycles in the standing area on the trains. In both the Portland and Seattle metro areas, bikes are allowed on at all times when there is sufficient room. In Vancouver, the Skytrain has either one or two bike spaces per car, but disallows bicycles during peak travel periods. The Bay Area Rapid Transit system in the San Francisco area recently experimented with eliminating restrictions on boarding with a bicycle during peak periods and it seems to be going well so far. If the experiment is a success, perhaps Vancouver’s Translink system will consider a similar experiment.

    Heavy rail has similar rules. The Seattle area’s Sounder and the Vancouver, BC area’s West Coast Express both allow bicycles on trains. It’s free for Sounder riders, but West Coast Express riders have to pay “$1/day, $5/week or $17/28 days.” Both services limit the number of bicycles per rail car.

    Bike sharing

    The inherent space limitation on transit vehicles means that they will never be able to accommodate more than a few cyclists and their bikes per vehicle. Conventional bike parking facilities help with one leg of the trip but leave transit riders without a bicycle on the other end of the trip. One practical alternative is bike sharing.

    bixi bike sharing station in Montreal

    @mikepick, flickr

    Bike sharing consists of bicycles available for short term rental. Typically secured to docking stations with electronic locks, bike sharing bikes are accessible via electronic cards or fobs. Members pay a flat rate by the day, week, month, or multi-month period and thereby gain access to any available bicycle in the network at any time. Typically the first half hour is free and then members pay extra for additional time.

    When bike share stations are located throughout a city, they enable short trips, including trips that begin or end at a transit station. Bike sharing has caught on in Europe and is rapidly expanding in North America. Bike sharing systems are relatively easy and inexpensive to set up. The bikes and docking stations cost far less than park-and-ride facilities and take up much less space. Bike sharing systems are also inexpensive to operate. In fact, many systems cover their operational expenses entirely through revenue from membership fees and advertising.

    In the Northwest, Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver all have bike sharing systems in the works. Portland is farthest along with an announced launch date for the spring of 2013. Vancouver is in the process of negotiating with private vendors, with a possible launch date in the summer of 2013. In the Seattle area, Puget Sound Bike Share (PSBS) recently announced an opening to fill the role of executive director. The PSBS website says they’re working to bring bike sharing to Puget Sound by 2013.

    Bike Lanes

    Integrating bicycles and transit is only effective when there are high-quality cycling routes between transit stops and people’s final destinations. A 2004 study by Karel Martens of Germany, England, and the Netherlands found that bike-and-ride usage tended to reflect the overall level of cycling for trips for the area in general. In Vancouver, Translink has made bicycle routes to transit part of their Transportation 2040 regional transportation strategy. (Vancouver’s Regional Cycling Strategy addresses other forms of bicycle transit integration as well.) Seattle’s 2007 Bike Master Plan (currently undergoing update) includes mention of integrating transit facilities into the bicycle route network. Portland’s Bicycle Plan for 2030 calls for prioritizing bike ways that go to transit stations along with other major destinations.

    Whether better bicycling facilities actually get built, however, (and how high-quality they are) are open questions. Over at the Seattle Transit Blog, for example, Zach Shaner questions whether downtown Seattle is ready for bike sharing.

    A call for action

    It’s clear that bike-and-ride facilities in all their many flavors offer major advantages for mobility in the Northwest. Such facilities are much less expensive than park-and-rides, not to mention more beneficial to the environment. Yet there is still much the region can do to encourage them. The Northwest is slowly cruising towards improved bike-and ride-options, and it’s about time to shift into a higher gear.

    What is your local government doing to improve bike-and-ride options where you live? What opportunities are being missed? Let us know in comments.