Willis Tower Shows Off City’s First Bike Valet for Office Workers

Bike valet at Willis Tower
Zach Vernon picks up his bike from the Willis Towers bike valet zone.

According to researcher Ralph Buehler, having a place to park your bike at work nearly doubles the chances that you’ll commute by bike. But in downtown Chicago workplaces, secure bike parking is a rare commodity, so let’s hope we see some copycats of the new bike valet at Willis Tower.

For people who work in the building and pay $250 each year, or about $1 per workday, the bike valet service works like this:

  1. Walk into the delivery entrance with your keycard.
  2. Drop off your bike in the bike valet zone.
  3. Go to your office.

Included in the annual membership is a tune-up from Pedal to the People and four washes. When you want to leave the office, you call the front desk to give the valet operator a heads up. When you get down to the parking garage, your bike is waiting for you in the bike valet zone.

Willis Tower general manager Gary Michon says it’s the first bike valet in Chicago. Prior to implementing bike valet, two car parking spaces were set aside to accommodate up to 60 bikes. Those racks were replaced with a new storage device, the Dero Ultra Space Saver, which now takes up four car parking spaces and provides space for 112 bicycles.

Which is more profitable, you might ask? The car parking spaces: Priced at $630 per month, the four of them would generate $30,240 annually, while 112 bike valet memberships would generate $28,000 annually. However, Michon says if this is successful – he expects to have full occupancy by the end of April – he will look into expanding, first with a new row in the same four parking spaces. “And if that doesn’t work,” he said, “I’ll expand it to the adjacent car spots.”

Bike valet at Willis Tower
112 bikes can fit into four car parking spaces. Don't worry, the parking attendant will do the heavy lifting.

Why do it? Michon says they are constantly finding new ways to attract tenants. “It’s something tenants are asking about,” he added. “I take a lot of companies on tours – entrepreneurs, small companies, big companies like United Airlines and Willis – and they ask questions like, ‘Hey, do you have bike parking facilities here?’ Everyone’s interested in having their employees biking to work. We wanted to one-up our competition and serve the best amenities here out of all the buildings in the area so we’re letting them know we have a valet service.”

Zach Vernon is a computer programmer for the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning and one of the 12,000 people who work in the Willis Tower. He rides a red Schwinn he purchased via Craigslist. He started working at Willis Tower in January, and winter biking intimidated him, so in March he signed up for the month-to-month membership ($25), thinking he would bike commute through the fall. “After biking in the snow and icy conditions,” he said, “it didn’t really bother me so I signed up for the annual membership.”

Bike valet at Willis Tower
A parking attendant brings Zach's bike to the Bike Valet Zone.

Vernon calculated the cost of his pay-per-ride transit use (“because I’m a programmer and I like numbers”) to figure that he was still saving $40-60 per month after paying for the bike valet membership. “I also factored in the benefit of the tune up, a cost I don’t have to worry about,” he said.

This month was the first time Vernon biked to downtown Chicago for work, having moved here from Houston in January. “I can tell you just from riding downtown to the park to go to fun events,” he said, “I worry less knowing that my bike’s locked up and there’re people who’ll tackle somebody if they try and take it. It’s nice to have indoor parking and not worry about frozen seat when I come out, I’m not worried about anything happening to it.”

I haven’t confirmed with Michon, the building manager, if the parking attendants will tackle anyone who gets through the locked door.

What does the future hold for bike valet in Chicago? Michon took pride in his building being the first in Chicago doing this, and he seems to think it will spread. “Other building managers are calling me to ask how I did it,” he said. Michon’s employer is U.S. Equities, a national property management company, and he estimates they manage 20 other buildings in Chicago.

Michon didn’t speculate if the other U.S. Equities buildings would add this new amenity, but it looks like his bike valet should raise the standard for buildings in the city. Even if building managers don’t implement full-fledged bike valet, they may at least be inspired to provide easier-to-access bike rooms and racks.

Bike valet at Willis Tower
Bike valet members enter through the messenger center door on Franklin Street.
  • Anonymous

    This is a great example of how a commercial entity can make bike parking (nearly) profitable. I think it is a great value as well, if you consider a. the added amenities, and b. the added security. When I used to park on the street, I never rode my nice bike, out of fear of it being stolen. Now that I park inside (not at the Willis tower btw), I can ride my nice bike and be assured that it is still there when I am ready to go home.

    Kudos to US Equities, for seeing a marketing opportunity for their property, while at the same time improving bicycling in Chicago.

  • I didn’t ask about maintenance costs. I bet that the maintenance costs, as a percentage of the revenue, is lower for bike parking than for car parking.

    I’m looking forward to seeing what demand looks like a year from now.

  • strategy52

    This is pretty awesome! I already had a great impression of U.S. Equities, and this only makes it better!

  • This is awesome. I’ve worked from home for the last two years, but I worked downtown for 11 years before that and being able to lock up in the bike room at 680 N. Lakeshore was a huge benefit.

    I know that parking downtown is taxed heavily. I wonder if the parking here is taxed the same, whether it’s four cars or 112 bikes in those spots. Or perhaps they can dodge the taxes on those spaces now since they’re no longer occupied by cars.

  • Mcass777

    What is the maintenance cost for a car/bike?

  • Ben Kintisch

    Okay, this is awesome. I’m visiting from NYC, where I’m a frequent commenter on the NYC streetsblog. I’d love for this article to be posted across the network so streetsblog readers across the country can hear about this.
    NYC passed a law mandating bike parking in every commercial garage, so you see 8-20 spaces, typically, in most regular car parking facilities. I wonder if any NYC garages are doing this kind of bike valet? What a great service!

  • The general manager Gary made it seem that only car parking spaces are taxed and he is now able to pay less taxes by an order of 4 car parking spaces.

  • Maintenance costs for car parking spaces in a garage are like $1,000 per space per year (if you include stuff like debt service). I presume this is built into the monthly fee.

    Costs of owning a car are somewhere between $8,000 and $12,000 per year, including maintenance. Cost of owning a bike… well, I haven’t seen research to this effect. Let me guess: less than $100 per year.

  • How great is this! I hope they do expand it to their other properties. Some buildings have bike parking but it’s often not very safe to get to, nor secure. This looks like it is both. Wondering if big ole Dutch bikes would work on those racks?

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