Today's removal of parking meters along the 100 blocks of East Main and South Pinckney streets may have unintended consequences: It could deprive cyclists of places to lock their bikes.
Considering the limited number of parking meters on those two blocks and the availability of other nearby parking meters and bike racks, this may not sound like much of a problem. But it has excited a flurry of discussion among attentive local bikers who foresee the possibility of losing more than 1,500 places to lock their bikes downtown.
The small-scale removal of perhaps a dozen parking meters on the 100 blocks of East Main and South Pinckney is part of a 90-day trial, during which high-tech multi-space parking pay stations are being installed and tested for their feasibility and cost-effectiveness.
Such meters have become common in Europe, and are now being adopted by cities across the U.S. as an enlightened alternative to the more familiar coin-operated meters. The new technology affords a choice of payment options, including credit and debit cards, as well as reduced maintenance costs and more efficient parking enforcement and revenue collections. The City of Madison is testing two models during the 90-day trial. Additional pay stations already installed on the 100 block of West Main.
Old-style parking meters may be cyclists' best option for securing a bicycle with a U-lock or short chain lock, however, because their poles are well-anchored to the pavement and the geometry of their meter heads render them all but tailor-made for use with such locks. (The geometry of some bicycles can sometimes conflict with the geometry of certain bike-rack models -- and some bike racks are not anchored to the pavement.)
In removing the meter heads for this trial, that security is voided -- though it may be restored to at least some degree when the heads are replaced by "ears" bearing the number of each parking space, which drivers will use at the new pay stations to identify the location of their car.
William Knobeloch, the city's parking operations manager, cautions that the 90-day trial does not mean wholesale replacement of parking meters with the new high-tech pay stations will be inevitable.
"This is just a 90-day trial," he says. Their feasibility and cost-effectiveness here remains an open question, he notes: Each pay station costs about $5,000, he says, and credit-card transaction fees will enter into the calculations. If the new pay stations prove feasible and more cost-effective for the central city, he adds, discussions will be necessary to determine how best to replace the bicycle parking places lost as a result of removing the 1,600 parking meters scattered throughout the downtown.
Streetscape esthetics and dynamics will also be a factor. Knobeloch notes that some downtown restaurants have established outdoor eating areas that encompass some of the existing meters, rendering it more difficult for parking monitors to check meters and empty coin boxes -- processes that can also impose on restaurant patrons' enjoyment of their outdoor dining experience.
There is also a segment of the downtown retail, restaurant, business and residential community that views bicycles locked to parking meters as clutter. (Never mind the clutter of cars and trucks parked at the meters.)
But Susan Schmitz, president of Downtown Madison, Inc., says bicycle parking has been one of the central issues confronted by the city's Platinum Biking City Planning Committee, established last year to develop a strategy for Madison to secure platinum status from the League of American Bicyclists' Bicycle Friendly Communities program.
"They're going to have to have more parking for bikes," insists Schmitz, who is serving on the committee. A draft of the committee's plan cites such options as covered bicycle parking locations, lockers, cages and stations. "The city has to do it," she adds. "We take this bike parking thing seriously."
Madison Ald. Robbie Webber has been among the most vocal advocates for improved bicycle parking facilities city-wide, and has suggested the construction of a centralized bicycle parking location downtown at a rebuilt Government East parking ramp.
But today, as meters have been removed on the 100 blocks of South Pinckney and East Main, cyclists who would have locked their bikes to those meters have been making do with locking their bikes to meters on adjacent streets, nearby racks and other fixed objects, including trees.