Corralling business support for bike parking

by Fred Sztabinski
illustration by Chris Simonen

This story originally appeared in dandyhorse volume 4, issue 1, Spring 2011. Purchase this issue here.

Bike boxes, cycle tracks and sharrows are examples of new bike facilities that have emerged in North American cities during the recent bicycle renaissance. Now you can add another: bike corrals. They may be old hat in Europe, but they’re the latest thing in Montreal, Vancouver, Portland and a host of other cities.

Bike corrals typically replace one or two on-street car parking spaces with parking for up to 20 bikes. The newly created space is often differentiated with paint, or physically separated by bollards or concrete curbs.

Given that bike corrals usually involve removing on-street parking – a hotly contested issue for the business community who see parking as key to their financial well-being – what is the likelihood of widespread adoption? And how will they fit into Toronto’s bicycle route network?

Like with so many other new cycling initiatives, Portland, Oregon is the trailblazer when it comes to bike corrals, having installed 64 throughout the city at last count. In fact, Portland’s bike corrals have been so successful that the City has a backlog of more than 50 requests by local businesses to install a nearby corral. In Canada, both Montreal and Vancouver are ahead of Toronto, each with about 20 and 10 corrals, respectively.

Toronto installed a bike corral as a pilot project in July 2010 on the east side of Spadina Avenue north of Queen Street. Two parking spots accommodating 16 bikes were separated from car traffic with flexible bollards. Though the corral was removed in November to allow for winter snow clearing, the pilot was deemed a success. A City survey of the public and the tenants in the buildings fronting the corral found the experiment popular with cyclists and nearby businesses. The survey also showed that cyclists chose bike corrals over other options closer to their final destination. This is consistent with the Vancouver experience, where some cyclists will choose a corral even though they were parking up to two blocks away from their stopping point.

The City of Toronto plans to reinstall the corral on Spadina this summer, though it will likely require official Council approval first. The business community in nearby Kensington Market has also asked City staff to install a couple of bike corrals near the Augusta-Nassau intersection. Kensington Market is a major destination for cyclists, and bicycles can end up locked to all manner of objects due to a shortage of parking.

If we want to see more bike corrals in our cities, communicating the benefits of these facilities to the public and private businesses will be a vital first step. Similar to Toronto, the City of Vancouver began with a pilot site at the corner of East 6th Avenue and Commercial Drive last summer. The City chose the site because there was high demand for bike parking, but low demand for car parking. The City approached nearby businesses, which were supportive of the idea of a bike corral.

Thus far, Vancouver’s pilot bike corral is well-used, and the City has received only positive feedback. According to Ross Kenny, a city project engineer, business owners view the new bike corral as a benefit for their business and a public amenity with advantages beyond more customers visiting their shops. “Business owners saw people using it who weren’t going to their business, but going to another store, two blocks away, or hopping on the bus, and they were fine with that,” Kenny recalls.

Bike corrals can unite bike and pedestrian advocates because moving bikes off of the sidewalk, especially in busy commercial areas and on older streets with narrow sidewalks, frees up space to walk, to install a bench or to plant more trees.

Shops, restaurants, cafés, grocery stores and other businesses all like the idea of putting a bike corral in front of their business because they attract attention, by extension provide them with an eco-friendly image and because it can free up sidewalk space for a patio or outdoor display space. It also creates a more varied, attractive and inviting public realm. In Portland, businesses also say they like the fact they’ll never have a big truck parked in front of their store. All of these factors can increase their exposure, customer base and overall sales.

A Portland State University study (PDF) surveyed local businesses to understand the impact, benefits and attitudes associated with the city’s bike corrals, the first of which was installed in 2004. The study found, with very few exceptions, that businesses within a half-block of a bike corral were supportive of the structures. Responses also suggested businesses believed the bike corrals meet a latent demand for bike parking, thus generating additional bike trips to commercial areas.

Back in Vancouver, the City has received numerous requests for bike corrals, and the outlook for expanding the program is encouraging. Vancouver businesses can request bike corrals in front of their location if they agree to regularly sweep the corral to keep it free of debris. (Once installed, City street sweepers can no longer access the area.) Vancouver is extending its one pilot project to add more than ten corrals as part of the city’s new separated bike lanes along Dunsmuir and Hornby streets downtown.

Installing bike corrals in the right areas is good city planning. Scarce public space can be used more efficiently, allowing as many as ten times more bicycles to be parked in the space that would otherwise accommodate one car. Installing bike corrals is also relatively cheap compared to other types of street improvements (estimated at between $1,000 and $4,000 per corral in Portland and Vancouver, depending on the design), and can provide a good return on investment to local businesses. In Toronto, however, there is the added cost of removing the corrals for winter and reinstalling them in the spring. Opponents to bike corrals could also point out the potentially lost revenue that the Toronto Parking Authority will forego when those spots are converted.

Successful implementation of bike corrals in Toronto will depend on businesses and local councillors understanding their benefits. And on streets where parking lanes become travel lanes at rush hour, there will be additional challenges. On the Bloor-Danforth corridor, for instance, Bloor West Village has parking lanes that could accommodate bike corrals, but in narrower sections – like the Annex – implementation may prove more difficult.

Bike corrals are just one of the mix of initiatives that city planners, Business Improvement Areas and other city builders have at their disposal to create more bike-friendly communities. But unlike bike lane proposals that often face stiff opposition, bike corrals have proven to be much less controversial and often have the support of the business community. It makes economic sense to improve the public realm near commercial areas by promoting the efficient use of parking space to accommodate more customers. On-street bike corrals will also raise the visibility of cycling in general and reinforce its status as a legitimate form of transportation. Bike corrals make sense for businesses and customers alike. It’s time Toronto took advantage of these benefits.

Top five perceived bike corral benefits for business (as surveyed):

1. Help to promote sustainability (86%)
2. Enhance the street and neighbourhood identity (84%)
3. Increase transportation options for employees and patrons (77%)
4. Increase foot and bike traffic (67%)
5. Increase the visibility of businesses from the street (53%)

Source: Meisel, D., Bike Corrals: Local Business Impacts, Benefits, and Attitudes, Portland State University School of Urban Studies, 2010.

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EDs note: The Roncesvalles community recently installed sturdy gates to preserve the health of the newly planted trees on their street and are now encouraging cyclists to lock up to the tree gates, as demand for bicycle parking continues to rise in this part of town (and all over the city.) Read more here. For more on bike corrals in Toronto see our interview with Jesse Demb of Cycling Infrastructure & Programs at City of Toronto Transportation Services: Toronto’s Bike Corral Pilot Expands to Kensington Market and our Kensington Market bike parking Bike Spotting: What’s Bike Parking in Kensington Market Like?

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