Who was first past the post?

Uncovering the history of Toronto's unique bike rack design

By Tammy Thorne

This article originally appeared in Spacing Issue 7, Fall 2006.

After submitting the story, before publication, bike thieves had begun to crack the famed "lollipops"using two-by-fours -- and an explanatory sentence had to be added. Our dandy advice: always lock your bike so the thief can't ride away on it. Lock the wheel as well as the frame to the ring or post.


Who was first past the post?

"It's like taking the cherry off the sundae," says architect and designer David Dennis of Jack Layton's claim that the now federal NDP leader came up with the concept for Toronto's ubiquitous ring-and-post bike stand. Dennis tells me this as he holds a chunk of the original cherry-wood bike-ring pattern. "All I'm saying," says Dennis, "is that the concept, the 'ah-ha moment,' came over a drawing board rather than a bar table."

By now, the story of the sketch on a napkin, or the sweaty beer ring and swizzle stick, is the stuff of local urban legend. Regardless of the various incarnations of the tale, Layton says it was definitely that evening in the pub when the simple design was conceived.

"We had a window seat at Foster's pub, I remember it vividly," says Layton, who was cycling committee chair at the time. He and other cycling types had been discussing a news item about ticketing cyclists who locked their bikes to parking metres. The problem was that the bikes fell down and got in the way of cars. So, they came up with the idea of putting a ring on the metre post so cyclists could weave their chain locks through safely.

"I will give David Dennis full credit for designing it," Layton says. But he is steadfast, if magnanimous. "I have no interest in taking credit for it, but I certainly remember the discussion in the bar about 'how can we make a parking metre into a bike stand' it was a circle or ring or some shape on the metre — that was the concept."

And Dennis, who worked for the City's Urban Design Group from 1981 to 1990, gives credit to Layton when it comes to the popularity of the ring and post. "Jack Layton may have expedited it and can claim credit for its larger use."

The ring and post is, indeed, very popular. A fixture on Toronto streets for over 20 years, there are now over 16,000 ring and post stands on city sidewalks and up to 2,000 more sprout up each year. About $250,000 of the City's $3-million cycling budget goes toward cycling parking programs.

Maintenance of the rings is estimated at about $10,000 a year, which includes replacing entire stands, rings and straightening posts.

They are relatively cheap to make and easy to repair. Rings are about $40 each and are cast aluminum. The ring is attached using a tamper proof nut. (However, the recently exposed method of busting the ring-and-post with a two-by-four has exposed a potential flaw in the design.)

A hole is core-drilled into the sidewalk and the galvanized steel post is grouted in place. A City crew installs roughly half of the posts, and a contractor does the rest. Installation by contractors costs about $70 per stand.

Although the City never bothered to patent the design or keep track of the other cities or institutions it has given the design to since the first ring and post was installed in the Spring of 1985, it is safe to say the design is now used all over the world. (The City doesn't even charge the nominal fee it once did for use of the design.)

Dennis says that patenting the ring and post would have resulted in numerous time-wasting lawsuits. "As public servants, we operate in vacuo and credit is not assigned. It would be like patenting a manhole cover." Layton disagrees. "We should've put a patent on it — that was a big mistake. We could be taking one cent or ten cents for every one used. It was not our wisest move."

We may never know the nitty-gritty of who did what when, but what we do know is that this little piece of street furniture plays a large role in carving out a place for cyclists in the city.

Lock your bike so that thieves can't ride it away if they break the ring.

P.S. We need more bike parking in Toronto now!

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