I’m rooting hard for the success of Cleveland’s Bike Rack. I’m talking about the capitalized, proper noun Bike Rack–not any little twist of metal you see on the street for parking your bike, but the purpose-built, $600,000 facility in the Gateway neighborhood.
It’s been open a couple of weeks now, so for bike commuters and anyone who pays attention to Cleveland transportation issues, this is old news. I visited the place Aug. 25, during its open house, a day before it opened. I’m writing this on the second day of the Cleveland Bike Summit because I’m hoping to bring it back to your attention after that initial flash of news coverage.
That price tag might sound staggering: half a million dollars to provide bicycle parking for 50 bicycles? Of course it is more than that: There are lockers, comfortable shower facilities (which you need if you want to look fresh and pressed for work), towel service if you want it, a repair shop, and an attendant on duty.
But the price tag is exactly why I say I’m rooting for the place. Because loaded in that statement is the knowledge that they are in a battle for their own sustainability. If you’re rooting for something, you’re acknowledging the possibility that they might lose. And this place has to demonstrate return –whether in dollars, political capital, or just positive buzz for the city–on a pretty big investment.
On the one hand, the price tag comes with a commitment. You don’t invest more than half a million dollars on a whim, or on something you’re not committed to. But on the other hand, a realist has to acknowledge that the Bike Rack is located on expensive real estate in a neighborhood with big development plans, and the number of people riding bicycles to work is still pretty tiny.
Cleveland has made great gains: ten years ago, when I commuted from Lakewood to the Free Times offices in Cleveland Heights, I might have seen one or two other commuters along that route. But in the last year, on a commute to downtown, I could count on seeing a dozen. And with a few more bike lanes, with something like 500 (lower case) bike racks installed on the sidewalks all over downtown and in neighborhoods, the city is treating its cyclist population much better these days. Still, the number of people getting to work on two wheels remains tiny.
The Bike Rack faces some changes ahead, too. The city owns the place, but as Tom Breckenridge reported in the Plain Dealer, ownership will transfer the Gateway North Garage (where the Bike Rack is located) to casino developers. The new owners will then lease the facility back to the city for $1 a year.
Through ownership changes, an annual lease, and inevitable political shifts, the only way the Bike Rack will keep its place downtown is by attracting plenty of cyclists. It has to fulfill its promise.
Frank Bruni captured the issue beautifully in today’s New York Times. Writing about the backlash against Manhattan’s traffic planner Janette Sadik-Khan over her embrace of bike lanes in the Big Apple, Bruni wrote:
“Biking, it seems, is an uphill ride, due largely to mathematics and a sort of Catch-22: with only a small percentage of Americans using bicycles as their primary method of transportation, there’s no huge public outcry for — or immediate political benefit to — remaking city streets so that they’re a little less friendly to cars and a lot more hospitable to bikes.
But without that hospitality, primarily in the form of better bike lanes and more bike racks, biking isn’t convenient and attractive enough to win all that many converts and thus a political constituency.
So if a city believes that biking is part of a better future, it must sometimes muscle through a reluctant, rocky present.”
So if you value the Bike Rack, use it. If you have considered biking to your downtown job, but you need to arrive clean and well dressed, try it out: The showers are nicer than the ones in my house. And for a $25 a month membership, it’s a ridiculous bargain. To get a parking deal like that for your car, you’d have to park down in the Flats somewhere, and you wouldn’t get a shower as part of the bargain.
Even with facilities like the Bike Rack, if cycling is to grow as a transportation alternative—to gain the respect of motorists, to burn less gas, to make neighborhoods more pleasant places to be—the most important infrastructure is human.