Eyes on the Street: Subpar Bike Racks at the Wilson Station

The new, mediocre bike racks at the Wilson station. Photo: John Greenfield
The new, mediocre bike racks at the Wilson station. Photo: John Greenfield

If you’re a regular Streetsblog Chicago reader you may be aware that I’m a fan of the nearly completed Wilson ‘L’ station reconstruction in Uptown. The project includes transforming the stop into a Red-Purple transfer, adding wheelchair accessibility, new station entrances, the restoration of the 1923 Gerber building, and cool public art by Cecil Balmond. Our readers recently voted the rehab to be the best transit initiative of 2017 in the Chicago Streetsies competition.

However, this morning I noticed a minor misstep by the planners. Recently installed bicycle parking fixtures represent a triumph of aesthetics over practicality.

Full disclosure: I worked as the Chicago Department of Transportation’s bike parking manager for several years in the early- and mid-2000s. Therefore I’ve spent way more time obsessing about the ideal shape and placement of bike racks than the average cyclist has.

Inverted U racks (these ones are near Wicker Park's Handlebar restaurant) may not be the prettiest bike parking solution, but they're a practical one.
Inverted U racks (these ones are around the corner from Wicker Park’s Handlebar restaurant) may not be the prettiest bike parking solution, but they’re a practical one. Image: Google Street View

I also personally arranged for three of the city’s standard, black “inverted U” racks to be installed inside the Gerber Building back around 2005, when the building served as the main station entrance. It was a nifty little weather-protected installation, if I do say so myself. It’s not clear whether the indoor racks will be replaced as part of the Wilson rehab — I’m looking into this.

While I’m not trying to be a hater here, I get the sense that the folks who selected the racks for the Wilson station don’t actually ride bikes much. The new rectangular fixtures look sleek, and may have been somewhat cheaper to install than inverted Us, but they’re not particularly functional.

This design works OK for securing a bike with a full-size U-lock or a cable. (But note that it’s foolish to use anything but the thickest cable lock as your primary bike security in a city like Chicago where bike theft is common, since most cables are easy to cut.) It’s possible to cram two bikes on each of the rectangular racks, although they’re really only suitable for one bike per fixture.

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Similar bike parking fixtures to the Wilson station racks, in front of the new Old Town School of Folk Music building in Lincoln Square. Image: Google Street View

However, the new Wilson racks don’t really work with mini U-locks, which are popular with urban bike commuters because they’re relatively light, fit nicely in a back jeans pocket, and allow you to lock the wheel and frame of your ride to most inverted U racks. (Of course, you also have to make sure that other wheel isn’t vulnerable to theft by securing it with another lock, using anti-theft skewers, or taking it with you.) In fact, mini U-locks are harder to defeat that full-sized ones, because there’s less room for a thief to insert a prying instrument and break the lock.

One might be able to secure the frame and rear wheel of a bike to one of the rectangular racks with a mini lock by locking the wheel to the fixture from within the frame’s rear triangle, which also secures the frame. However, most cyclists probably aren’t going to be aware of this hack, and will instead seek out the nearest sign pole or wrought iron fence. In fact, there’s a fence on the south side of Wilson west the main station entrance by a Divvy station that’s currently a popular place to lock up.

Speaking of which, I’m suspicious that this rack design was chosen for Wilson stop because the rectangles echo the form of Divvy docks. I wouldn’t be surprised if confused visitors try to dock their Divvies within the openings of the new fixtures.

I understand that when your local transit authority installs bike racks that are less-than-ideal, that’s a good problem to have. Many urban systems aren’t as bike-friendly as the CTA, which has carrying racks on all buses and allows bikes on trains during all non-rush-hour times.

The bike racks at the Cermak Green Line station may be nice to look at, but they're a pain in the neck to use. Image: Google Street View
The bike racks at the Cermak Green Line station may be nice to look at, but they’re a pain in the neck to use. Image: Google Street View

Still, the installation of bike racks that are deemed architecturally appropriate, but don’t function well, at ‘L’ stations is an annoying, recurring issue. For example, the stainless steel racks at the recently opened Cermak Green Line stop may look nice, but bikes locked to them tend to fall over because the rack doesn’t easily support the bike in two places. Moreover, unlike the square tubing used on the inverted U racks installed by CDOT, the round tubing used here is susceptible to pipe cutter attacks. Similarly attractive, but impractical, racks made of stainless steel tubing were installed by the new Morgan Green Line station.

The bottom line is, when it comes to outdoor bike parking, it’s hard to beat good old inverted Us, installed parallel to each other in a sequence, for space efficiency, security, and ease of use, so CTA station planners shouldn’t try to reinvent the wheel. (The CTA does have some nice indoor installations featuring double-decker racks, such as what currently exists at the 95th Street terminal.) U racks may not be a particularly sexy bike parking solution, but as legendary Chicago architect Louis Sullivan said, “Form follows function.” It shouldn’t be the other way around.

  • This bike rack design (which I don’t know of a name for) is becoming more pervasive. They exist at the new Google HQ in the West Loop, and at other new office and residential developments.

    They make locking a bike more difficult, as you’ve fully described.

    I’m not a fan.

    No design has so far beat the utility of the U-rack. It comes in any color, can be made in multiple sizes, and supports custom designs inside the frame (although I know some people dislike this).

  • **

    Agree with you both! The simple inverted U works great. Personally I prefer without
    neighborhood branding because it’s quite an elegant form and the simple U allows easy lockup of several bikes
    of different sizes. The branding “band” of metal often gets in the way, especially with smaller bikes and women’s frames.

  • Tooscrapps

    The Lakeview East U-racks are superb. Though I’m biased because I live in LV East and orange is my favorite color.

  • Matt

    The city’s standard, black “inverted U” racks are most practical. They’re probably cheaper too. I appreciate public art and prefer to keep it separate from my bike racks. Artsy racks just complicate locking up.

  • Deni

    It’s even worse at the new building on the corner of Clark/Division (with the new Jewel). There have been no bike racks installed there at all. Most bikers end up having to use one of the trees. Lots of sidewalk space but not a single bike rack.

  • skelter weeks

    The wavy racks are better. You can lock up more bikes.
    The inverted U racks encourage people to lock up parallel, which means ONLY 2 bikes per rack. Then you quickly run out of bike parking space at popular locations.

  • Chicago60609

    As long as the first two riders lock up their bikes on the outside of the U, a third rider can lift his front wheel over the center to lock it up. Happens daily at 35th/Archer Orange line station.

  • Anne A

    I’ve got the same complaint about the Jewel location nearest to home (95th and Ashland).

  • Anne A

    “installation of bike racks that are deemed architecturally appropriate, but don’t function well, at ‘L’ stations is an annoying, recurring issue. ”

    Yep, favoring design over function in something like a bike rack is one of my pet peeves. Doing it once was bad enough. Doing it repeatedly over a period of years is VERY annoying.

  • kastigar

    Those bike racks are popping up all over. Another note: they come loose from the ground very easily.

    There’s some loose ones at Sulzer Library on Lincoln Ave, and at least one loose one at the Albany Park Library too. In the original design at the Albany Park Library they were mounted closer to the wall, protecting them from the weather. Somehow during construction the location got swapped.

  • ChicagoCyclist

    Hi — Is the first photo under the heading “How to Lock Your Bike the Right Way” on this webpage, https://lifehacker.com/5942301/the-proper-way-to-lock-your-bicycle, the locking “hack” that you refer to in your article?

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Correct. It’s kind of a topological puzzle to wrap your head around this, but the only way a thief is going to get your wheel and/or frame this way is to cut through the lock, the wheel, or the frame. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/591fda0d8e4ee41d25c8711b687060c73868511cea904773d55208bb1f77210f.jpg

  • Greg

    That birdie has been resting there for days. Must be all tuckered out.

  • Cappleman Knows Best.

  • Did you know…Ald. Cappleman squashed a sculptural bike rack competition/installation that came out of his Participatory Budgeting the one year he tried it?

    According to the rules set out at the beginning it should have been funded.

    According to one of his former staff members…it was squashed because I was the chair of the arts committee that presented it and got the votes.

    There are other cool things Cappleman has squashed, too much to list. Bit wonder why there is less public art in Uptown…that is why. We presented a way to bring art with function( bike rack) and it got squashed for one prima Donna Alderman.

    Also…. Cappleman stuffs artists…the latest one is the gentleman and his team who repainted the Bezazian library mural.

    This rack was chosen by his insular little team of “experts” who just happen to be campaign donors.

    Enjoy.

  • Correction…stiffs artists…not stuffs…that sounds like taxidermy.

    Another time was when he held this mural competition inline. The “winners” were so excited until they found out Cappleman the Feckless wanted then to paint for free with listings from Sherwin Williams.

    Womp womp waaaahhhhhh…..

  • Jeremy

    One of the things Cappleman nixed was the Underline project, proposed to go next to the rehabbed Wilson station.

    https://wilsonunderline.com/plan/

  • rohmen

    For what it’s worth, I use the Sheldon Brown method religiously as well.

    That said, some think it makes the bicycle easier to steal since you could technically cut the wheel faster. I agree with Sheldon’s old comments that it’s hard to believe most bike thieves would ever cut through a rear tire/wheel considering a wheel is so valuable.

    However, I do remember on some bike forum board a few years ago someone actually posted a few pics of thieves in NY that had obviously done just that and stolen the bicycles.

  • JayRayJay

    Talk about form over function, these racks are the worst. Also these racks are going to work themselves loose from the concrete in the first year. See video in link below of racks outside the new Google Offices. The footprint is so small, the anchors so close together and the rack being solid cast aluminum has so much mass you can leverage them like crazy. Also scrappers are starting to yank them out of installations because they’re so valuable and easy to steal.
    https://youtu.be/dCHWxGyYR1U

  • Bobby

    I think this is the design in question. They installed these at my workplace and I find them difficult to use too, usually opting for a sign pole instead.
    https://www.forms-surfaces.com/capitol-bike-rack#

  • Frank Kotter

    Aaaaaand ….. they’re really breathtakingly expensive. When people ask why the U.S. gets shitty infrastructure at twice the price, allow this to be exhibit ‘A’. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/2b8e5f83f31bbd07b13a32b539780998c12dc19ae8b950279ee71f5b88c360ea.gif

    What does the ‘Vance Stand’ cost? A hundred bucks?

  • NC

    Wheel, tyre each require different tools to cut, that adds to complexity a bit. This is fine for most places but not all.

  • ridonrides

    I personally like the chrome-looking half-moon racks like the ones on Roosevelt and Wabash https://www.instagram.com/p/BTuG4nJhPPk/. They’re round instead of hard-edged and attractive.

  • rohmen

    Wouldn’t a portable angle grinder slice through a tire and most aluminum rims in seconds? I thought the two-tool thing was more based on when people were using bolt cutters, but I’d think most thieves would have upgraded to portable grinders by now.

    I mean, with an angle grinder, you’d still be able to get through a ulock even, but it burns blades pretty fast from what I’ve heard, and it would take a couple of minutes.

    Like I said, I use this lock method, as I still think most won’t do it, I just don’t view it as fool proof.

  • Jeremy

    And they allow the rider to “arrange” the bike so it obstructs the bike lane.

  • rwy

    I’m thinking that zoning should include bike parking requirements.

  • LackThereof

    Yup, a battery-powered angle grinder kills the rim and frame in seconds. This might have worked back before they were cheap, and hacksaws were the tool of choice, but nowdays I would never use a bike wheel as the attachment point; thief will take the frame and leave the (ruined) wheel.

    Hell, he might take the ruined wheel anyway just for the cassette.

  • skelter weeks

    But most won’t do that. They’ll stick their bike against the rack longways, making it difficult to attach more than one other bike to the rack.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    I also like wave racks, provided that the spaces between the vertical sections of tubing aren’t too small, so that you can comfortably fit a bike on each vertical section. IIRC, 24-30″ is a good spacing. The main downside of wave racks is that cyclists sometimes lock their bikes parallel to the wave, blocking a bunch of spaces, so when I was working at CDOT we made a sticker showing the proper way to park. I’m particularly proud of the installation I designed outside the Millennium Park Bike Station, with something like nine wave racks, 54 spaces — very handy for concerts at the bandshell.

    If you want lots of parking and are using inverted U racks, just place a bunch of them parallel to other in a sequence, 30-36 inches apart, as shown in the above photo of the installation near The Handlebar. In this configuration each rack easily parks two bikes.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    These kind of racks are OK, if a little tricky to park a bike on without a risk of it falling over. But this photo shows a major bike parking “don’t.” Securing both wheels and using two different kinds of locks are good practices (although it’s not so important to lock the rear wheel with a coaster break, since many thieves won’t bother to go through the relatively involved process of removing the wheel, which requires a couple different tools.) But the cyclist secured their rear wheel with the relatively tough U-lock, while locking the bike to the rack with the skimpy cable! A bike thief could just snip the cable, throw the bike in their van, and break the U-lock at their hideout at their leisure.

  • kastigar

    Information about these racks:
    https://www.forms-surfaces.com/capitol-bike-rack

  • **

    The Lakefront Trail Separation in the 46th Ward lacks leadership, too. The plans for Montrose to Foster—for which the Park District already awarded the contract—have serious issues that need to be addressed.

  • JayRayJay

    Where did you find this?

  • Frank Kotter

    https://procure.ohio.gov/PriceList/800073pricelist.pdf

    Just googled ‘Forms and Surfaces bike rack price’. The state apparently has a policy of uploading all their vendor price lists.

  • JayRayJay

    The upside down U rack isn’t intended to accommodate more than 2 bike each. Most people don’t want to beat up the underside of their down tube by laying it over the top of a rack in the way you’re suggesting. Plus this leaves your bike in a very unstable position with only one point of contact on the ground so there’s a greater chance it’ll tip over and get even more beat up.

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