A writer for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel asked about our experiences with bike racks on buses here in Madison. A recent article there had been drawing some negative comments because usage of the racks was slow. Here's what I told him, with a few edits for this blog:
I was on the committee that finally convinced Metro Transit to put racks on. I'd say we installed them in around 1998-1999, maybe earlier. There was a lot of resistance from drivers, mechanics, etc.
Now, of course, everyone thinks they are a rousing success, and wonders who could have ever been against the racks.
However, I still have people tell me - after the city has had racks for 10 years - that they don't use the racks because they aren't sure how to use them. I have a solution to this, and people are thrilled to give it a try: I tell people to just try out the racks while the bus is sitting on the Capital Square or at one of the transfer points. It only takes a few seconds, and the hardest part is remembering how to lift up a bike. (this is especially true for people who don't carry their bikes up and down stairs very often, and aren't used to putting them on car bike racks.)
Metro has been great about bringing spare buses around to city festival and events so people can try out the racks. Weekends they aren't using all the buses anyway, and people really appreciate the chance to try using the racks when the bus is parked in the neighborhood. The racks look very complicated, but the instructions are printed right on the rack, and it's really quite intuitive.
I'm not surprised that usage is low at the start. People have their travel routines, and we are creatures of habit. I hardly used the racks at first because I either biked or took the bus, not both. Now I use the racks when I'm running late, and the bus is faster than my slow bike pace; when it's rainy/cold/I'm tired and I just want to get home, or if I have mechanical problems. Also, if I'm going a longer distance and don't want to ride the whole way, or if I want to ride
one way, but not round trip.
But I'm a dedicated bicyclist, and am also very accustomed to the bus system. Plus, I'm used to multi-modal trips. Most people can't get over thinking about trips as only one mode: I'm taking the bus. Or I'm driving. Or I'm biking. People have a hard time thinking about using some combination 0f modes to get to their destination.
This is the same reason people drive all the way to the University or downtown, and then complain about parking costs. Why don't they drive part way (if they live way out of town or don't have good bus or bike options) and then take the bus the remainder of the way? Ask anyone who lives outside the two-hour parking zone, this is pretty common. There are informal park and rides on many city streets and even at city parks, and sometimes, the "ride" is taking a bike off the car and biking the res tof the way to work.
Usage of the racks on buses will pick up, but it takes time for a new technology to catch on. People are slow to change their routines, and it just doesn't occur to them to stick their bike on the bus, but it will.