email of the week: more bike racks on buses?

Bus-bike-rack-rsA reader asks:

Do you have any examples of buses that can take several bikes rather than just two on the front?  I suggested at the Velovillage conference that transit companies run a competition for designs to put more bikes on buses.  Where i live, many people are left by the side of our roads or at the main bus stop unable to board or have to leave their bike behind.

There are ways to fit another bike or two in. Seattle's King County Metro, pictured, is up to three.

But when you consider the real problem, on-board bus racks cannot possibly be the long-term answer.  Obviously, bus drivers hate anything that reduces their visibility, including downward at something or someone that they're about to run over.  The broader issue is simply that bikes take space, even when they're outside the bus frame, and taking that space has consequences. 

For example, exterior bike racks increase the length of the bus.  That means the bus needs a longer bus stop zone, needs more room to turn, etc., and this can easily make the difference in whether a bus line can get through a tight spot where its service is needed, or has to make a detour around it.  Small racks are widely accepted in North America now, but in the long run it should be obvious that bike racks on buses only work if they're not very popular.  The long term solution has to be a range of bike parking and bike rental stations at stations.  This is what you'll see in bicycle-dominated countries in Europe.

33 Responses to email of the week: more bike racks on buses?

  1. anonymouse July 16, 2012 at 11:59 am #

    One of the big reasons to bring a bike with you is if you have last mile problems at both ends of the trip, with both your origin and destination being too far of a walk from the transit line. A classic example of this is Caltrain, especially the reverse commute from SF to the South Bay, where there’s not very good transit to the train station in SF, and on the opposite end, it’s often a mile or two from the station to the suburban office parks. Caltrain is also a good example of another phenomenon: the faster a service goes compared to just biking, the more likely it is that cyclists bring their bikes with them rather than just riding. So bikes on board is a proportionately smaller problem with buses. And to some extent it’s a self-limiting one, because as more people ride transit, it becomes more feasible to provide a bus for that last mile, and there’s less need for bikes. But yeah, bike parking and rental will help a lot too: security is a big problem with bikes, and I’d rather not bring my bike to a city like SF, but at the same time, that’s still better than leaving it unattended on a bike rack at a station for a whole day.

  2. California July 16, 2012 at 12:30 pm #

    In California, transit agencies with triple bike racks include Yolobus (Davis), LACMTA only on the Orange Line (Los Angeles), and Long Beach Transit; there may be others too. I’ve heard there are bus bike racks that can hold four or five bikes as well.
    While Jarrett’s point about the inherent capacity limitations of buses carrying bikes is important, and recognizing that bike parking and rental need to be part of the solutions, having more bike rack capacity can be beneficial. If 10% of riders on a 45-seat bus are bike riders and the line carries 90 passengers total per peak trip, that’s nine riders with bikes. If 2/3 park their bikes, but 1/3 need it at the other end because they are going to a location without sufficient demand for bike sharing, that triple rack would be very handy for the third rider.

  3. Theo July 16, 2012 at 12:32 pm #

    Another issue with exterior bike racks is the loading and unloading time delays caused by bikes being loaded and unloaded (up to half a minute if the cyclist doesn’t know what s/he’s doing.
    Doesn’t SWIFT BRT in Snohomish Country, WA have a triple bike rack inside the bus? I would imagine the space taken up by three bikes is probably equivalent to 5 seats and/or 10 standees, but my guess is that delays due to loading and unloading bikes are kept to a minimum. Has anyone ridden SWIFT before? Are the bike racks popular?

  4. Kilodelta July 16, 2012 at 1:00 pm #

    Swift does have bike rack space for up to three bikes in the rear section of their coaches, but they take up a lot of space:
    That said, they also significantly speed up boarding for cyclists, and when not in use create a ton of standing room in the back. It’s a trade off.
    I don’t ride Community Transit enough to know how full Swift gets, though it is the busiest CT route.

  5. Andre Lot July 16, 2012 at 2:14 pm #

    @Kilodelta: the problem with that solution is that people are more likely to use bikes during peak times, when the extra standing room is needed indeed for people.
    I think a market solution could be reached, like a hefty (like double normal fare) surcharge for carrying bikes during peak times, such that people are discouraged from bringing bikes at more crowded hours.

  6. John Bassett July 16, 2012 at 3:03 pm #

    In LA, Metro permits folding bikes inside the bus at all times. They take up about the same amount of space as a stroller (and make you equally unpopular).

  7. anonymouse July 16, 2012 at 3:44 pm #

    @Andre, there’s no need. People are surprisingly capable of using common sense here and not trying to jam their bikes onto crowded rush-hour trains unless they absolutely have to. At least, that’s been my experience with the NYC Subway, which has no time-based restrictions on bikes. Hard and fast rules and surcharges tend to lead to wasted capacity when trains are in the “rush hour” period but not actually full, and to a sense of angry cyclist entitlement on “off peak” trains that may sometimes be more full than “rush hour” ones.

  8. Alai July 16, 2012 at 4:48 pm #

    From personal experience, there’s one thing which the racks are ideal for, even in the long term: breakdowns and late-night trips. I’ve used the racks before when I had a flat on the way to an appointment. It meant that I was able to make it in good time, instead of being stranded with few alternatives (taxi all the way there and again all the way back? Finding an open bike shop?). It works well because few people need the service at any given time (which avoids overcrowding problems), but it’s very valuable for the people that do.
    anonymouse: I imagine one issue would be people with bikes getting on empty trains at the beginning of the line, which fill up later.

  9. Alan Robinson July 16, 2012 at 4:50 pm #

    Thus begs the question, how can or should transit agencies define their role in transporting bicycles? Jarrett?
    Demand for transporting bicycles by transit may be shifted in several ways, including fare policy and bicycle parking provisions. Given the last mile problem and the possibility of suffering a mechanical failure far from home, I believe transit should provide at least some service for transporting bicycles, especially on rapid services. However, given it’s much cheaper to provide bicycle parking than bicycle transport, every effort should be made to keep most cycle/transit commuters from bringing their bikes on board.
    One common strategy that I wholeheartedly disagree with are blanket restrictions on transporting bicycles on transit, especially during peak hours on commuter services (Chicago Metra for instance) where one can be stranded during critical times by transit.
    With regards to high capacity bicycle racks, increasing the number of bicycles that can be stored from 1 to 2 to 3 has a dramatic effect on the probability for being passed-up. i.e. The probability for being passed up with a poisson distributed 10% load factor given a capacity of 1,2, and 3 bicycles is 10%, 1.8%, and 0.4% respectively. Even though the capacity increase may be moderate, the reliability is increase is substantial (as long as not too much demand is induced).

  10. Joseph Singer July 16, 2012 at 4:57 pm #

    KC Metro’s racks built by Sportworks (in Woodinville, Washington) are _horrible_ and are supremely difficult to use. You need to push in on a button and then pull out often with great difficulty. Either the racks are badly designed or Metro sees no need to maintain them so that they work properly. Metro has had “demonstration” racks at several bike events and of course they work flawlessly but actual racks on bus not so much unfortunately and do not work so flawlessly and often work only with extended messing with them so they’ll accept a bike or not work at all. Sportworks made a really bad design when they designed these “threesies” at least the double racks that they had previously were fairly easy to use. The current racks are anything but easy.

  11. Mike Hicks July 16, 2012 at 6:32 pm #

    I’m in the Twin Cities, which has a strong bicycling culture, and I haven’t seen the bike racks on front of the bus turn away too many people — but perhaps I haven’t been looking hard enough. There’s only one incident that I remember within the last year where someone was turned away because the rack was full, and Metro Transit only has 2-bike racks. To their credit, Metro Transit has bike racks on virtually all of their buses (aside perhaps for some suburban express routes).
    But that all probably just means that many people have already experienced problems in the past and have been turned off from the idea, only using the bike-bus combo occasionally. As @California mentioned, stationary bike racks at bus stops help, as do rental or bike-sharing systems.
    We have the Nice Ride bike-sharing system here, which makes it easier to get around town if you leave a bike at home. The bike stations could be located much more closely to major bus stops and train stations, however — right now they are often a block or two away from what really makes sense to me. Also, it would be helpful if my transit smart card and my RFID bike-share “key” were actually unified so that I could use and pay for both services seamlessly.
    Of course, I personally ride a recumbent bike which isn’t going to fit on a bus rack anyway (or if it did, it’d probably block any adjacent slots).

  12. Dexter Wong July 16, 2012 at 6:43 pm #

    As for buses with bike racks for more than 3 bikes, Chico Area Transit System had 5 on the back of the bus back in the late 80s. But that was a small system that could afford to wait for passengers to place and remove their bikes. I don’t know what successor B-Line does for bikes, though. Where I live now, Honolulu, has Sportworks bike racks (like Seattle), but have seen no complaints. However, you could lose your bike if the bus has a front-end accident.

  13. B July 16, 2012 at 8:57 pm #

    Lawrence Berkeley National Labs has shuttle buses which take two bikes in the front in a conventional style and another 5 or 6 in the rear hanging vertically. Probably best illustrated with a picture:

  14. Sean Nelson July 17, 2012 at 12:39 am #

    Many’s the time I’ve decided to ride my bike based on the possibility of using a bus if the weather turned sour or if I pooped out or if it got too late, etc. etc. But in actual fact I hardly ever use them.
    So I always like to point out that an empty bike rack shouldn’t be thought of as a waste – it’s mere presence encourages cycling even when it’s not being used.

  15. Alan Howes July 17, 2012 at 4:14 am #

    I’m glad to say that exterior bike racks are unknown in the UK (invitation to be corrected!) – in some rural areas bikes are carried inside buses. Bike racks at bus stops are the normal solution – and at rail stations in Scotland at least, bike lockers.
    It’s the loading/unloading time that would bother me, and its effect on service reliability. And if it’s the rider that’s responsible for fixing the bike on the rack, isn’t there a possibility of it falling off, with possibly disastrous consequences?

  16. Alai July 17, 2012 at 4:36 am #

    The driver can easily see if there’s a problem, so I doubt the falling off issue is all that severe.
    As for loading time, I can do it in about 5 seconds. People who are inexperienced or physically weak might take longer, but certainly less than deploying the wheelchair lift. If there are multiple people boarding, the biker can load while the others board.

  17. CityBeautiful21 July 17, 2012 at 6:49 am #

    One other issue transit agencies must grapple with regarding larger bike racks is nighttime safety, and particularly interference with headlights.
    Our agency looked into 3-bike racks a few years back and after trying one on a bus, we noticed at night that the 3-bike rack caused considerably more interference with the headlight light diffusion than the 2-bike rack. Ultimately, this was the deciding factor because all of our vehicles pass through poorly lit areas on suburban roads. If you’re a transit agency with a service that only runs on an urban corridor with continuous streetlights, it is possible that this issue can be overcome in that context. But for the ability to add just one more bike, the overall safety drawbacks outweighed the added benefit of the additional rack space for us.
    On the broad point, Jarrett is exactly right. The expansion of the bus/bike network has to be addressed most significantly at the stop level with (ideally) covered bicycle parking and increasingly, bikeshare.
    Finally, I think there needs to be a reality check on the feasibility of bike & bus as a travel combo in the US. Much of the US has summer temperatures more like Spain than northern Europe. When you look at European mode splits, bikes dominate the non-motorized sector in Scandinavia and Germany, while walking dominates in Southern Europe.
    Until it’s acceptable or desirable to arrive at work or in social situations as a sweaty mess, warmer-temperature locales will have a natural ceiling above which bicycle use will be held.
    It’s not a coincidence that bike commuting is most widely embraced at the one place in America the the primary commuters can go to “work” in their pajamas- colleges.
    This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t invest in all types of bicycle infrastructure to complement transit use; I broadly support doing so and finding funding to make it happen. I simply believe we need to keep in mind that the primary access mode of the most impactful transit networks on their community, regardless of mode, is walking.

  18. Aaron Antrim July 17, 2012 at 9:10 am #

    I’ve wondered if it would be practical to charge an extra fee (say ~$0.75) put your bike on the bus on systems where there are more bikes than space in the rack. A lot of passengers used bike-and-ride on small system where I am from in Northern California. If the racks filled up, the driver would let passengers hold their bikes inside if there was room. It got pretty crowded. If there was a small extra fee, that would make it so that only people who really needed it would do bike and ride.

  19. Aaron Antrim July 17, 2012 at 9:38 am #

    @Andre Lot
    Just saw your comment suggesting the same idea.

  20. Andre Lot July 17, 2012 at 11:46 am #

    Many comments here seem to reinforce what Jarret had written: bike-racks and similar service add-ons are only possible when the number of cyclists is small or the turnover of rack use is limited.
    The example of bikes on a subway cited by anonymouse is a good one: it is only viable to let them in because there are very few of them around. A bicycle takes the space of at lest 4 people seated or standing, so maybe they could charge a 4x normal fare for carrying bikes…
    The examples of strollers or even wheelchairs are not very good ones, because their use is usually already maxed out while many suggest bike use should be increased. I think virtually anyone who can walk without a wheelchair will not use them, and for most parents strolls become uncomfortable to ride once children are old (and heavy!) enough to walk on their own.
    However, as long as people believe bicycle use should be increased, it makes no sense to treat bike rack operations like access for strollers or wheelchairs.
    In the Netherlands, where bicycles are plenty and ubiquitous, bikes are not allowed in all but a few bus lines, on intercity/heavy trains during peak time, on Rotterdam, Den Haag and Amsterdam subway, light rail and trams all time. The answer to the need to accommodate a sheer number of bikes is a collection of parking lots for thousands of bikes in each station, including a system where people can rent enclosed lockers for storing bicycles.
    Actually, there are quite a few people that, using bicycles at both ends for their last-mile transportation, maintain 2 bicycles in two lockers (usually one is a cheaper model) in two stations so that they don’t carry bike on trains (which is charges at € 6/day).

  21. Murray July 17, 2012 at 4:06 pm #

    Unsurprisingly, most of the comments are from a public transport point of view. As a cyclist as well as PT advocate, I’m trying to look at it from the perspective of the needs of the bike rider.
    I don’t think any cyclist (or should I say most) wants to take their bike on the bus if they can avoid it. They know it’s awkward and inconvenient for both themselves and other passengers.
    The suggestion of providing bike parking and/or rental is good, but often there simply aren’t safe places to lock ones bike at or near a bus stop (though the larger bus stations on Brisbane’s busway stations do have them.) This is something I looked at in my last job.
    Where I currently live, I want to ride, but it’s very hilly which makes it hard to get anywhere on the bike. I don’t have a car, so if I could take the bike on the bus, I could get past the hills, and ride. Sadly, we don’t have any facilities to take bikes on buses, so I’m left without the exercise.

  22. Corey Burger July 17, 2012 at 5:53 pm #

    BC Transit considered 3-bike racks a little while ago here in Victoria and then rejected them.

  23. Daniel Sparing July 18, 2012 at 12:06 am #

    Technically speaking, you could transport more bikes, e.g. five bikes at the rear of a Swiss Postbus:
    or a whole bike trailer in Germany, slides 18-20:
    I agree, however, that bikes should be kept out of urban buses with frequent stops. Bike parking and bike sharing/rental is the solution. These bike racks are rather for regional/intercity buses.

  24. calwatch July 18, 2012 at 12:08 am #

    San Luis Obispo RTA has buses that can carry six bikes. There is a three bike rack in the front and a three bike rack in the back.

  25. Andre Lot July 18, 2012 at 4:29 am #

    @Daniel Sparing: I checked those slides. They are more “light cargo” operations viable only on minor rural routes. 500 bikes transported per day in a corridor whose passenger turnover is 40.000 daily is an insignificant, negligent number.
    @Murray: the problem of making public transportation too much “bike friendly” is that is slows down everybody else. Which is the reason, as I cited, that countries with very high usage of bicycles as transportation such as Denmark or Netherlands have much more strict policies about taking the 2-wheeled things on buses, trams, subways etc.

  26. Eric Doherty July 18, 2012 at 3:53 pm #

    If you ride transit outside of the central area of Metro Vancouver you will know that buses can take far more than two bikes off peak – as long as there are no transit supervisors around. The inside wheelchair / stroller space is used, exactly like on rail transit in the region. Yes, this is against the rules, but it works. No fancy racks are needed to take five bikes when only two fit on the rack.
    Carrying bikes on transit should not be separated into bus and rail. The inside spaces are basically the same. Why would you allow bikes on an 80 foot long light rail vehicle and not on an 80 foot long bus? On both, cyclists should be expected to quickly yield the space to wheelchairs or strollers. And on both good design and lots of wide doors helps the same space work for multiple purposes.
    This is of course does not apply to crowded peak period, peak direction, travel. But there is more to life than rush hour.

  27. dean July 20, 2012 at 1:11 am #

    First, thanks to Jarrett for generating the interesting discussion.
    I’m a multi-modal northern European cycle tourer and cycle commuter — using bike, regional rail and sometimes metros(w/ Birdy folder) or trams on my daily route and cycle + trains on longer trips.
    What I’d like to add to the discussion is that I don’t think comparing the Netherlands to, say, the USA or Canada is of much interest really. I regularly cycle-tour in Belgium and the Netherlands and can say that busses don’t really come into the picture. I may not be looking hard enough, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bike on a bus. Certainly not around my home.
    No, it’s trains for tours and then bikes alone or bike + regional rail for daily commutes. A question of size and scale, surely, and available infrastructure for cyclists. Of course lots of relatively secure places are provided to leave a bike around rail hubs and many transit stops for any “last kilometer” cyclists who may want to lock and leave their bikes. Even here in northern France where I live utility cycling and secure bike storage is catching on.
    In sum, what I’m wondering is just how relevant the bikes-on-busses debate is to our habits and needs? In any case, I’d caution that any comparisons should be carefully considered and not taken at face value.

  28. Leo @ HK July 20, 2012 at 9:14 am #

    Just like to share with you the arrangement of “bike onboard” for this bus in the Sunmoon Lake tourist area in Taiwan.

    You can see from the photos that bikes are supposed to be placed in the middle of the bus compartment, at a maximum of 4!
    Obviously it creates capacity issue with the bus. But considering it runs in the tourist area at a 1-hour headway, ridership is low, thus is not a problem.

  29. Daniel Sparing July 21, 2012 at 11:46 am #

    @dean: Bikes on buses might make sense for longer (regional and intercity) or mountainous bus routes where trains are not available. And the US intercity rail network is also not famous for its attractiveness.
    After all, Jarrett often argues that buses can offer virtually the same transport service as rail, except for very high capacity. Well, if a long distance service is provided by a bus instead of a rail link, it might need bicycle transport provision.

  30. George December 18, 2014 at 11:26 pm #

    As a cyclist who uses his bike and bus together almost everyday, this conversation somewhat frightens me.
    My commute by bus can be up to 2 hours by transit alone. A bike significantly cuts this time down to about 50 min. Furthermore, in the late evening when Night service starts and it is more challenging to get a transfer and you are farther away from a Bus stop, a bike is super handy. In short, I am never late when I bike & bus.
    I would hate to see cycling racks disappear on trains and buses. The racks empower commuters as a self-driven, efficient, and effective form of transportation.
    I think when commuters are well informed and are familiar with the system, the amount of time to remove the bike is really insignificant.
    The only problem I see here, is how do we accommodate more bikes on the system without inhibiting the capacity and swiftness of other people using transit. I believe this is the question we should be pursing rather than throwing our hand in the air and saying, It can’t be done so lets side step the issue and determine ways in which will discourage bike use on transit such that the demand matches the capacity.

  31. Joseph July 6, 2017 at 3:29 pm #

    Metro bus bike racks have bent all my bicycle frames…?

  32. MG July 10, 2017 at 1:00 am #

    Perhaps not an issue for most who bus with their bikes but family cycling is significantly more difficult with the current infrastructure for public bikes.

    We have public bikes but they are only within a very narrow corridor of the city and unfortunately I have been unable to use them since they arrived (even in that corridor) because my child is 10 or more years from being able to ride them. If public bikes are going to be an answer they must include family cyclists. This means either bikes with trailers/seats, the development of trailers that will go onto buses and hitch to couplers or a universal platform (most likely Yep based) for bikeseats that customers drag along with them onto the bus…

    Others can choose to rent a bike when they get in to campus/downtown but I really can’t as there is no legal (much less safe) way to tote my daughter. Getting to the bus stop is challenging when it is a full mile away and you must carry or walk/manage a forty pound child plus food and gear. And without the bike it could be well over three hours _one way_ to get to the other end of the city.

    Of course if bike infrastructure itself were more improved it might be easier to bike directly (even towing an additional 75 to 100 pounds) for trips under 20 miles. Unfortunately our ‘bike friendly’ city has many ‘designated’ bike routes that are recognized by its own alternative transportation authority as quite unsafe even for solo commuters.

  33. moonynite January 19, 2020 at 6:03 am #

    I wish I could use three bike racks on buses which we don’t have in our big cities because growing number of people are now fighting over who gets a ride and 2 out of 10 having to miss out ride I never seen so many people now wants to bring bike than before