Racked with Pain

The mystery of Metro's disappearing bus-bike commuters.

By Eric Scigliano August 17, 2010 Published in the September 2010 issue of Seattle Met

Image: Nicole Yeo

IN HILL COUNTRY like Seattle, bike racks on buses are a godsend for anyone trying to kick the gas pump. Sure enough, bus-biking surged 
after Metro installed cowcatcher-like racks in the ’90s. Then something changed.

Metro and other local transit agencies won’t tally the number of bikes slung aboard their buses till October, but all indicators show it’s slumped. The number of forgotten bikes recovered from Metro is decreasing. And the racks are visibly less crowded this year than last, so bus-bikers no longer have to jostle or wait for empty slots.

Metro officials suggest various reasons: the economy (“Fewer people have jobs to commute to”), a rainy spring. Or it could be that more bike lanes mean fewer cyclists using the bus. But Dave Janis, the Bicycle Alliance of Washington’s policy director, sees another culprit: the racks themselves. In 2007 Metro began replacing its two-bike racks with triples that it custom-designed in collaboration with the manufacturer, Woodinville’s Sportworks; it finished the changeover this June.

The new racks have powerful spring-powered, ratcheted clamps that enable them to hold wider bike tires. Users must simultaneously pull, squeeze, and lift the handles—an awkward, complex maneuver. “They can be really difficult,” says Janis, “especially if you don’t have a lot of upper-body strength.”

Worse yet, he notes, the design forces some users to step out perilously into the line of traffic. “We’ve gotten a lot of complaints about the three-bike racks. I never heard anyone complain about the doubles.”

Sportworks Vice President Derek Sanden says no other transit agencies have reported problems with the new racks. Eileen Kadesh, who manages Metro’s bike program, admits there’s “a learning curve” but says using them gets easier as their springs loosen. “That’s not the feedback I’m getting,” says Every Day, the Bicycle Alliance coordinator who oversees Metro’s lost-bike depot. “Apparently they get stickier as dirt builds up.”

Small wonder bus-biking has declined. “It’s kind of ironic,” muses Janis. “You add capacity, and people use it less.”

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