Bicycles on Transit
Unless you live and work directly next to a transit stop, you are going to need to travel at least some distance to get there. This distance is called the "last mile problem" and is a particular problem for rail lines, which in general only stop every mile. While there might be a park and ride lot you could drive to, and of course I encourage you to take the bus to a rail line , the "last mile" is often traversed on foot or via bicycle. This article examines the latter - how bicycles are accommodated on transit and what improvements can be made.
Bike Racks on Buses
One area of transit that is quite a bit different from even ten years ago is the almost ubiquitous nature of bike racks attached to the front (and in rare occasions, the back) of buses. While most transit agencies have racks that hold two bikes, it is becoming increasingly common to find some who have racks that hold three bikes. Given how much space they take up, I cannot imagine ever seeing racks that hold more than three bikes.
In the beginning, when few people want to take their bikes along with them on their bus ride, two and especially three bike-holding racks work O.K. But what happens when the numbers increase to such a number that bikers are being routinely passed up at bus stops because the racks are full? While I do not have industry wide numbers, I can tell you that at the agency I work at on a daily basis the number of bikes we carry is about equal to the number of wheelchair users. While the ADA has identified procedures to be followed in the case of wheelchair pass-ups, there is no equivalent procedure to follow in case of bike pass-ups. What should we be doing?
Nothing. While some agencies allow bikes to be brought on board the bus, safety and space considerations would seem to dictate that such an action only be allowed in extreme cases, like the last bus of the day. Overall, the limited capacity of buses to hold bicycles means that encouraging bicyclists to bring their bikes along with them is not a good long-term strategy. A better strategy would be to have bike storage and bike rentals at station stops so that a cyclist can ride their bike from home to their boarding station, put their bike in a locker, ride the bus or train and then rent a bike at their alighting station to reach their destination. While some may think this solution could only work in Europe, in reality several American cities, including Denver , are doing this exact thing.
Bikes on Trains
Since we are obviously not going to attach racks to the front of the subway, any bikes on trains must be brought into the cars. Heavy rail operators have widely different policies on bikes on trains, with some allowing bikes at all hours while others prohibit them during peak hours altogether or only at certain stations. For example, BART only allows bikes at the Embarcadero Station during peak hours for travel to and from the East Bay, and prohibits them altogether during those times in downtown Oakland. On BART, bikes are never allowed in the first car, presumably because their placement would likely block the entrance to the control cab. Interestingly, folding bikes are allowed at all times.
In contrast to BART, Caltrain, which operates a commuter railroad between San Francisco and San Jose, offers two bike cars on each train. Each car can hold as many as forty bicycles. While BART is more crowded than Caltrain, heavy ridership does not necessarily affect bike policy, as they are allowed on the New York subway at any time (although the New York MTA encourages cyclists to avoid rush hours). In contrast, Chicago and Washington prohibit bikes on trains during rush hours.
Interestingly, American transit agencies are more lenient on bikes than are European agencies. London prohibits bikes altogether on many Underground lines and allows them on the rest except during peak periods. Paris forbids them on its Metro altogether with the exception of one line on Sundays. In addition, the attachment of bike racks to the front of a bus has yet to catch on outside of the United States and parts of Canada.
Overall, transit agencies are in the business of carrying people, not things, and each additional large object (including bicycles) brought onboard means fewer people being able to board. While in the days of empty transit vehicles it did not matter what each individual person was bringing with them, as ridership increases agencies are increasingly dealing with the problem of how to accommodate large objects on board ( this topic is discussed more here ). In terms of bicycles, transit vehicles have limited space, and cannot accommodate a large number of them, meaning that another solution needs to be found to overcome the last mile problem then using your own bike on both ends of the trip.