10 March 2009

Shedding light on empty bike sheds

The bike parking at Tate Modern is an interesting case study. They've provided a perfectly decent bike shed less than 40m from the main entrance. That's not far. You could throw a pot of green custard further than that.

But nobody ever uses it (top right). I was there last night and, like everyone else (below right) I parked my bike on the railings that lead up the slope to the main entrance.

Similar effects can be seen everywhere. Many supermarkets, for instance, put cycle racks off at the other end of the car park, with the result that trolley-park railings, being next to the entrance, are pressed into service as impromptu Sheffield stands.

We're not being contrary or ungrateful. It simply goes to show that we expect cycling to be a door-to-door activity. That's the beauty of it.

Another element is probably psychological. There's something open and obvious about a bike. Unlike a mobile phone or a collateralised debt object or Microsoft Word's file-saving format, it's perfectly clear how it works. You can see all the cogs and wires in front of you and how they all join up. A hitherto uncontacted Amazonian tribe with no knowledge of fabulous modern technology such as polyphonic ringtones would grasp a bike's mechanical principle at a glance.

That straightforward, take-me-as-you-find-me concept often applies to cyclists as well, who are usually unpretentious and down-to-earth. (Though I'll grant you, racers and couriers can be a bit bonkers.)

So I'm sure that's another factor behind the Tate Modern Effect. The bike shed's not far, but it's concealed, out of the way, out of my psychological control zone. The railings are right there, open, accessible and visible. And other people are already parked there, too. (As with restaurants, we're more likely to opt for the place that's already populated over somewhere empty.)

Memo to planners: Whatever the artist's impression might have depicted, we'll go for the street furniture by the way in over a five-star bike park round the corner every time. In the world of bike parking, 40m is a long way.


  1. It may be operfectly clear to you how a bike works, but it isn't to me - which is why the owner of my local bike shop is so rich!

  2. By a strange coincidence I was at Tate Modern last week and parked my bike on the railings by the East entrance just as you did.

    I was vaguely aware there were some Sheffield racks somewhere but didn't see the need to hunt for them given that there were those fine railing right by the entrance.

    For me, a big attraction of those railings is that they are visible from all sides in the middle of an area of high pedestrian traffic, and so feel more secure than a bike shed that you evidently can't see from the entrance.

  3. Last time I had my bike at Tate Modern, I also parked on those railings. I simply assumed there was no bike parking when I couldn't immediately see it.

    A rule of thumb: if you'd unfold your Brompton rather than carry it, it's too far.

    This poses an interesting dilemma at Cambridge rail station, both for the existing and proposed bike parking. Currently there are about 700 spaces and well over 1,000 bikes parked regularly. In those circumstances your strategy changes I think: I go for the *farthest* racks because I know there's no point looking for a free rack closer to the station and it will save me time. If there's a space at all, that is. Many bikes are now parked attached to crash barriers 150m from the station entrance because there simply is nowhere nearer - no racks, no street furniture not already occupied.

    Proposed is a 3,000 space multi-storey bike park. There are those who say the bike parking should be "right outside the entrance", but that simply isn't possible. You cannot accommodate 3,000 spaces at 1m2 each all withing 10m of the station door. Someone's going to have to walk the 50m from the far end of the park. But at least when they build it you know there will be a space, at least until all the suppressed demand wakes up and fills it. But it's going to be a Preston Guild(*) before they build it - especially as the recession has probably put the redevelopment back by years.

    (*) a quaint unit of time, roughly equal to a Blue Moon.

  4. On which topic, see today's http://www.camcycle.org.uk/map/location/16088/