Streets for People / We Need to Increase the Quantity and Quality of Bicycle Parking Downtown

By Chris Hamilton. This story was written for and published by KONK Life newspaper on August 27, 2021 and is reprinted here with permission.

Local bike shop owners tell us bicycle rentals and sales have been way up over the last year. Travel and economic reports indicate Key West has more visitors and business is booming downtown. Anecdotally, we see lots of people on bikes. On Duval and adjacent commercial streets, we’re observing full bike racks. As a result, bikes are parked on trees, streetlights, signposts, and fences – which doesn’t help our already overcrowded sidewalks. It’s time to add way more bicycle parking capacity downtown and go beyond the hodgepodge placement of bicycle racks to a system that places racks in the street (not on our crowded sidewalks) in the same places on every block, so people know what to expect. While we’re at it let’s put the Parking Department in charge of bicycle parking too.

More Visitors. More Business. More People on Bikes.

Everywhere you turn local, Florida and national news outlets have been publishing data that say Key West is experiencing record numbers for hotel occupancy rates and average room rates. Restaurants and bars that usually experience a dip in the summer, report jammed venues and exhausted staff. The Key West International Airport is experiencing the highest monthly totals of visitors ever. The season, it seems, is never ending. The boom means more people downtown especially. 

Says Evan Haskell, owner of We Cycle Bike Shops:

“Not only are there tons of people here and the town is maxed out, COVID-19 had the effect of getting more people active outdoors. Bike rentals are up, with 2021 looking to well exceed 2019 figures. I’d be selling bikes like crazy if I could get them. It’s a global bike boom for demand and that is compounded by the global shipping challenges affecting all imported good.”

Tom “The Bike Man” Thiesen, owner of Bike Man Bike Rentals:

“There are tons of people on the island and that equates to all the bike rental shops being very busy. Also, all the hotels in Key West are maxed out.”

More People on Bikes Puts a Strain on Our Limited Bike Parking and Crowds Our Narrow Sidewalks

We’re happy to see so many people using bicycles and walking to get around. That’s a good thing. But look around as you traverse Duval and adjacent streets. You’ll see the bike racks we do have are full and you’ll see every tree, streetlight, signpost, fence, and awning pole jammed with bicycles too. It makes our already overcrowded, narrow sidewalks harder to navigate and if you aren’t paying attention, you could get hurt. 

We have to go mostly on anecdotal information and observation here because the City just doesn’t track bicycle parking the same way it doggedly manages, maintains, and tracks the City’s downtown 1,800 car parking spaces in lots and garages and 3,000 on-street car spaces. 

The City’s Modest Plans for Bicycle Parking Downtown

In a May 2021 Transportation Report, presented to the City’s Sustainability Advisory Board and City Commission, Tim Staub, the now departed for grad-school Multi-Modal Transportation Coordinator, reported that during the last year the City installed “new racks on Caroline Street, the Pocket Park, the Truman Waterfront Park, and Varella and Duval Streets.” The report also says, “More to be installed at: Duval, United, Fleming, Front, Simonton, Grinnell, Frances, Dog Beach, Smathers Beach and the Community Sailing Center.” That’s it. No specific numbers or timetable. That’s the plan.

Follow-up with City staff revealed that: 

  • In Fiscal Year 2018 $30,000 was allocated for bike racks and all the money was spent. 
  • In FY19 no money was allocated to bike racks.
  • In FY20 $45,000 was allocated for bike racks and all the money was spent.
  • In FY21 – the current year – because they still have unplaced bike racks in storage, they moved the allocated $45,000 for new bike racks to FY22 to instead cover the match needed for the Last Mile project placing parking for bikes in racks and lockers at the Lower Keys Shuttle bus stops
  • In FY22 the current version of the budget includes $45,000 for bike racks. The budget has not yet been approved.

I’m told that with current prices and when accounting for shipping costs, that $45,000 in the coming year’s budget could net bicycle parking for about 1,000 bikes (2 bikes each per loop or rack) at a mix of 5 U’s, 4 U’s, 2, U’s and bollards. A “U” is simply a bike rack that looks like an upside down or inverted U. They can be strung together to consist of two to five or many more. A bollard usually consists of a single pole that includes a place to loop a lock through and is bolted to the ground.

What we can’t tell our readers is how much public bike parking exists. There isn’t an inventory of racks on the street. Nor can staff tell us the number of racks and exact locations of parking recently installed or in storage awaiting installation. Nor when and where and how many are to be installed other than what is in the above report. To be fair, without someone in Tim’s position, we shouldn’t expect this kind of information anytime soon either. 

But again, unlike our reporting on car parking herehere and here, without being able to put any real numbers to the problem our evidence for lack of capacity only comes from daily observations. 

More Quantity and Quality Bike Parking Needed

Getting people quickly and conveniently to and around downtown by bike is an easy way to help pedestrianize the area. Research shows bike parking is good for local business. Especially for spur of the moment or impulse buying because bikes make that easy. Our current bike parking seems very hodgepodge and not thought out. Some blocks seem to have a bunch of racks and others, nothing. On one block there are a series of bollards, often too close to cars or jamming people to walk single file. On other blocks there are a series of inverted U racks taking up space on the sidewalks or they are in the street. There’s no consistency on each block let alone the entirety of downtown. There seems to be abandoned bikes everywhere too.

The City’s adopted Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan identifies seven “Moving Forward – Transportation Programs and Policies” where the City needs to take “Action.” The fourth of those policies is:

“ACTION: Increase the Quantity and Quality of Bicycle Parking”

That’s where we get the name for our story. The action states “Bicycle parking is an essential element in a bicycle transportation network. People need to know that there will be a safe place to lock their bicycle at the end of their trip.” It goes on to say that “there should be enough bike racks or lockers to satisfy demand so bicycles are not parking where they should not.”

Based on simple observation, there isn’t enough parking. And while there is no detail in the report, the graphic accompanying this action indicates that for short-term parking, in addition to Sidewalk Bicycle Racks,” there should be “On-Street Bicycle Corrals.” 

At least in most places downtown let’s stop erecting the one-off bike racks in the sidewalk that force people to walk single file on some blocks and instead install bicycle corral parking in the street. Corrals are a great solution for places where demand for bicycle parking exceeds the available sidewalk space, like in Old Town.

What’s a Bicycle Corral?

A bike corral is a group racks installed adjacent to the curb in the parking lane of the street. Corrals typically provide parking for 10 to 24 bikes on 5 to 12 inverted U’s. Corrals use paint, small buffers and flexible bollards and a wheel stop or parking block to demarcate and protect their location. The advantages of using corrals include:

  • Corrals provide an inexpensive and efficient means of increasing total parking capacity
  • Corrals provide a 10 to 1 customer to parking space ratio vs car parking
  • Corrals advertise and promote “bike-friendliness”
  • Corrals clear the sidewalks for uses such as walking, window shopping and outdoor seating
  • Corrals improve visibility at intersections by eliminating the opportunity for large vehicles to park near the corner
  • Corrals increase the visibility of businesses from the street vs having a car parked in front

The most famous use of widespread bike corrals is in Portland, Oregon where at last count in 2019 the city had installed 158 of them, mostly at the request of business owners who asked for them to be placed at their building. 

Quality = Predictability: Place Corrals on Every Block Adjacent to Duval Street

I recall, four or so years ago, the affable and long-time Parking Director John Wilkins telling me he thought bicycle parking should be found in large numbers, corral style, in the first car-parking space on the corner of every street that crosses the length of Duval. He said this lends itself to installing scooter parking right next to the bicycles. His idea stuck with me because it’s a good one. 

One could simply replace the first car parking space on most of these crossing blocks where there’s space (Front, Greene, Caroline, Eaton, Applerouth, Fleming, Southard, Angela, Petronia, Olivia, Virginia, Catherine, Louisa, United and South) with a bicycle corral and/or replace the first two car parking spaces with bikes in the first and scooters in the second. Or on the south side of Duval put the scooters in and on the north side put the bicycles. The important thing is to do the same thing on every cross street from the Gulf to the Atlantic. The consistency makes it easy to remember. And as we said above, this provides better sight lines for turning vehicles at these intersections and so minimizes crashes with pedestrians and bicycles. Another advantage is the City doesn’t have to move the existing U racks off Duval Street for Fantasy Fest and special events like they do now – because the racks would already be on the side streets.

You can see a great example of this concept on the 500 block of Petronia at Duval across from the 801 Bar. The first parking space is for bikes. The second is for scooters and the third begins the car parking. That’s the way it should be up and down the corridor. On the 400 block Applerouth Lane near Mary Ellen’s there’s scooter parking and then a little bicycle parking hidden behind that. And on the 400 block of Eaton, in front of St. Paul’s, there’s weirdly a one car parking space, one space for bicycles and then one space for scooters. The parking in front of St. Paul’s vividly demonstrates how about 16 bikes can fit where one car parks. Other blocks like on the 500 block of Southard have scooter parking in the first spot. So, there’s already kind of a start to this concept. Now we just need to add it all along Duval. And while we’re at it lets find places to put corrals on other commercial blocks within the historic area. When the sidewalk is narrow, bike parking belongs in the street.

Quality = Artistic Designs and Longer Term Protected Parking

We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that we’ve often heard people in the arts community advocate for some artistic designs for our bicycle parking. The Council of the Arts sponsored a nice design for bicycle racks and a bus stop at the Truman Waterfront Park. Could something be done long-term to upgrade the design quality? Yes. 

The Bike/Ped Plan also suggests the City investigate longer term, protected parking in the form of lockers, cages, and stations in high traffic areas downtown. And to consider event parking. All good ideas.

Abandoned Bikes

In chatting with Tom “The Bike Man” Thiesen about these ideas, he said of this story, it’s a “good plan.” He reminded us of the need for “monitoring bike racks for derelict bikes.” He’s right! A quick read of the various local Facebook groups around town or in the Citizen’s Voice column and you are sure to run into complaints about old, abandoned, or derelict bikes taking up space on our limited supply of racks. If only there was someone that could monitor the situation…

Perhaps Bike Parking Should Be Managed by the Parking Department

The City’s very well-run Parking Department does an excellent job in monitoring meters, loading zones and residential parking spaces, hmm… perhaps they could help. But the Parking Department has nothing to do with “bicycle” parking.

Why is that? 

The City has dozens of corral style bike racks in storage waiting for a home, but installation lags. Despite money in the budget, no one bought any new bike racks this year. Perhaps this is because the responsibility for bicycle paring rests with no one person or department. The Multi-Modal Transportation Coordinator position, which oversees new parking, resides in the Planning Department. When that position wants to install parking, it must be run through and approved by the Engineering Department because they control the streets. Then if something is approved it goes to the Community Services Department and waits for their Public Works Division to find the time to install it. We have no idea who monitors derelict bikes. Sounds like a bureaucratic black hole to us. Perhaps since Mr. Staub has recently left the position, it is time to rethink the way the City does bicycle parking.

Mr. Wilkins runs a tight ship in managing the Parking Department. He’s known for solid research and reporting. He’s good with his staff. He’s shown an affinity for multi-modal transportation as he’s part of a small group that launched the successful Duval Loop and he’s thought about bicycle parking as evidenced by his idea for bike corrals and scooters. Could not the people who oversee car parking spaces, loading zones and the like also monitor, and manage bicycle and scooter parking? No one knows the downtown streets better. So perhaps this department should manage all the curb space. We think it is an idea the City should consider.

More and Quality Bicycle Parking = a Better Downtown

Adding more bicycle parking, enhancing the quality of the facilities by using corrals, and making the parking placement more consistent will help our downtown function better. It will free up some needed space on our crowded narrow sidewalks as bikes move from trees, poles, and fences to proper spaces in the street. We may even get more people on bikes by making it easier to park. Our little island paradise always wins when we make it easier to bike. 

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You can find all the KONK Life Streets for People column articles here.

Chris Hamilton
Chris Hamilton

A native of the District of Columbia, where for a couple decades+ he led the nationally renown Commuter Services unit for Arlington County, VA’s DOT, Chris has lived in Key West since 2015. He lives downtown and works and volunteers for a couple non-profits.

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