Solving Penn's two-wheel parking problem

Penn Design's Jenny Sabin and Annette Fiero

Penn Design's Jenny Sabin (left) and Annette Fiero want to replace the campus bike racks and add lockers. Their preliminary design (pictured at right) is weatherproof and secure.

The recent SEPTA strike had many Penn staffers mulling over other ways to get to work. For those who dusted off the old Schwinn in the garage and took to the bicycle lanes, the experience may have proved an eye opener. After sharing the road with more-impatient-than-ever commuters, finding a safe place to stow their bikes on campus was hardly a walk in the park either.

What Penn offers in terms of bike storage “is just a mess,” says Annette Fierro, an associate professor of architecture at Penn Design who recently collaborated with Penn Praxis, the school’s design clinic, to find a better solution. “All the galvanized racks are really dysfunctional,” says Fierro, “and basically falling apart.”

She and Jenny Sabin, then a graduate student and now a lecturer in the department, took stock of the problem through focus groups and an online survey. Sabin also looked into reported violations and found that in areas with insufficient racks, people resorted to illegal and hazardous alternatives, such as tying their bikes to trees, chaining them to handrails or leaving them in the fire stairs of campus buildings.

Preliminary design

Preliminary design

Sabin and Fierro also researched bicycle storage systems throughout the U.S. and further afield, from simple racks to containers to bike stations. In terms of what’s available in the U.S., says Sabin, “the West Coast is definitely far and away ahead,” with bike stations in several cities—including Long Beach, Berkeley and Seattle—where you can store your bike, get it repaired, have a cup of coffee and even take a shower. Worldwide, Sabin says, Amsterdam and London stand out as cities committed to incorporating bicycles into daily transit.

Based on the results of their research, Fierro and Sabin have come up with a three-tiered plan for the Penn campus that includes racks, lockers and stations. The proposal calls for replacing the dozen or so different types of racks on campus with a simple, prefabricated spiral design that allows for a two-point locking system to secure both the frame and wheel to the rack.

The team also designed a locker, large enough to house two bicycles, to be built in pods of four to 12 near buildings with 24-hour access. Fierro, who says most of the bike lockers she’s seen “look like big outhouses,” worked with Sabin to achieve “the ideal structural type that would be light and fun.” The system they settled on looks something like a Slinky. “Imagine a hemisphere of translucent fabric with ribbing that closes down on both sides over the bikes,” explains Fierro. Constructed from woven composite mesh over high-strength steel ribbing, the translucent locker is weatherproof and, with photovoltaic cells woven into the fabric, could also be illuminated for added safety.

For the bike station, Fierro and Sabin envision a small building near mass transit where anyone, including the general public, could park their bike. The most popular venues, according to the focus groups and online surveys, would be 30th Street Station and 36th and Walnut streets, across from Cosi. Though the stations have yet to be designed, according to Sabin they would include a conveyor belt, “like at the dry cleaners” for bike storage, as well as a bike accessories store, lockers and showers, an area for repairs and tune-ups and a coffee kiosk. With an outdoor plaza, too, Sabin sees it as a “social square, not just transportation.”

Before you cancel your Trailpass or parking contract, you should know that funding for the project is still up in the air. With help from the Bicycle Coalition of Philadelphia, which also aided the team’s research efforts, Sabin and Fierro have applied for several transportation enhancement grants. If those are successful, the project will move into the next design phase.
Sabin is optimistic. For one thing, Philadelphia has a “biking mentality,” with more bike paths than any other city. “Given what we saw happening in Chicago [a pioneer in introducing bike stations] where the weather is even worse than ours,” she adds, “it seems like Philadelphia is ripe for this kind of thing.”

The Graduate Student Center at 3615 Locust Walk is currently hosting an exhibition of preliminary designs and survey results relating to the bicycle project.

Originally published on November 17, 2005