form and function

Amid the fires again – the map the LA Times posted this morning is terrifying, even from Koreatown, and my thoughts are with people who’ve had to flee.

But on a biking note, commenter Ed was good enough to pass on a recent blog post from the New York Times talking about the city’s bike-rack design contest. The winner, it seems, has just been announced:

A simple circle, resting on the ground with a bar bisecting it. That concept, called “Hoop” — the brainchild of Ian Mahaffy and Maarten De Greeve, designers based in Copenhagen — is the winner of the CityRacks Design Competition and will be used as the new standard bicycle rack installed on New York City’s sidewalks, officials announced on Friday. Nearly 5,000 such racks are to be installed over the next three years.

The round rack and horizontal crossbar evoke “an abstracted bicycle tire,” the city’s Department of Transportation said in a statement. “Constructed of cast metal, the design is elegant yet sturdy enough to withstand New York cyclists’ harsh treatment.”

First of all, it’s absolutely phenomenal that the city supported a contest like this: It says a great deal that city officials were involved (including Janette Sadik-Khan, the city’s transportation commissioner) and speaks well for New York City’s approach to developing cycling infrastructure (Though, via BikinginLA, LA might not be a lost cause after all). On a related note, it’s interesting to see the way in which the DoT framed the decision: As elegant yet sturdy. Clearly, there was a question of aesthetics involved in this, as if the larger NYC public wouldn’t respond well to dull and predictable U-barred bike racks.

But what’s even more interesting is to read the comments that follow the post. As the first commenter pointed out, “Sure it looks sleek and edgy. But how will that thing “meet the City’s bike parking needs”? It looks like it can park 2 bikes maximum. They better put a dozen of these hoops side by side each site.” Other commenters worried that the rack’s shape and single point of contact would make it easy for thieves to level the whole rack out of the pavement. Another commenter worried, “Like many other nice-looking designs, it only handles 2 bikes. And usually just one, because 2 bikes attempting to share it end up mashed together, so the second cyclist looks around for an alternative…” Most of the comments continue in that vein, until the last comment is actually written by David Rulon, the original designer of the U-rack. Rulon has his own design to recommend (pictures here), but in the end, I’m still left with a couple of basic questions:

How much does beauty have to do with it? And how do planners know how balance form against function? One of the consistent concerns of the commenters was the apparent emphasis on form over function. Sure, several wrote, it looks good, but it doesn’t look all that functional! Several also wondered if any of the people serving on the award committee had actually ridden bikes in the city. From their perspective, the contest had more to do with people thinking about how to make biking pretty rather than knowing how to make it practical. The issue isn’t particular to this contest, either. I know one of my own complaints about the way in which biking infrastructure seems planned in Los Angeles is on the basis of what looks good on a map rather than what’s actually functional on the pavement.

Not something that I have an answer for, but these questions of form and function are going to come back again and again as the city develops its cycling infrastructure (and, via Streetsblog, the City Council Transportation Committee is hosting a bike-themed meeting!).

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4 responses to “form and function

  1. Pingback: what’s in a network? « los angeles rides

  2. Pingback: Bike Review Blog » Blog Archive » The new bike rack design for NYC

  3. Pingback: The new bike rack design for NYC | Bike Review Blog

  4. Pingback: The new bike rack design for NYC | Bicycle Design

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