Off the Rack: Bike rack competition seeks designs that blend art and functionality

As the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities gears up to introduce its new bike share program to Philadelphia, their colleagues in the city’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy are coming up with artistic solutions to deal with the resultant increase of bicycles. In conjunction with the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, the city recently launched a competition for artists and designers to create bike racks that will double as public sculptures.

David Byrne's "The Ladies Mile," on 5th Avenue between 57th and 58th Streets, in front of Bergdorf Goodman“We’re really trying to succeed on both fronts,” says Gary Steuer, Philly’s chief cultural officer. “We want these to be functional as bike racks, but also to be beautiful and engaging and interesting as art.”

The program was inspired by nine bike racks designed by musician and artist David Byrne in New York City, which were created in partnership with the New York City Department of Transportation and the Pace Wildenstein art gallery. Steuer initially contacted Byrne about undertaking a similar project in Philadelphia, but the former Talking Heads singer was unwilling to negotiate with the city in terms of his designs.

“He wasn’t interested in going through an approval process with the arts commission,” Steuer says. “He wanted to just come up with designs and say ‘Here they are,’ but we couldn’t avoid the regulatory process.”

When those talks fell through, however, Steuer saw an opportunity to engage with more local artists. While the city’s competition casts a wide net, special consideration will be given to Philadelphia artists. The city worked with the Bicycle Coalition to apply to the Knight Arts Challenge, which awarded the project a $50,000 challenge grant, requiring the raising of matching funds.

“We’re looking at structuring things through partnerships with property owners for certain sites,” Steuer says, citing the large plaza across from City Hall in front of Center Square, the site of Temple University’s Center City campus. “Assuming they become a partner, that particular rack might be limited to students or alumni from Temple’s Tyler School of Art. And we may do something similar with the University of the Arts, which obviously has a significant need for bike racks along Broad Street.”

The deadline for proposals is early September 2013, and the bike racks are slated for installation in the spring or summer of 2014. The plans include the possibility of small two-bike racks as well as larger, corral-sized racks that could hold up to 10 bikes, with budgets from $5,000 to $15,000.

“We’re concentrating on Center City because we want the bike racks to be visible to the largest number of people,” Steuer says, “and to really be a part of the city’s public art collection... We believe that we have the largest collection of outdoor public sculpture of any city in the U.S. So, the bike racks become an opportunity to add to that and to use the need for the utilitarian bike rack as a way of adding to the beauty that people encounter in our streets.”

Steuer hopes that some of the designs may become prototypes, to be replicated in neighborhoods throughout the city by neighborhood organizations, businesses or institutions.

The competition fits in with the Bicycle Coalition’s advocacy mission. “[It] really celebrates bike culture,” says executive director Alex Doty. “If you look at Portland, which is a leader in bicycling in the United States, their infrastructure isn’t that much greater than what we have. The difference is that bikes are seen as an integral part of how that city operates... This kind of competition nurtures the kind of bike culture we’re building here in Philadelphia.”

Steuer’s office will be in charge of the aesthetic end of the process, while the Bicycle Coalition will ensure that the bike racks are functional as well as beautiful.

“This is really exciting for us,” says Doty. “These racks are going to be something that you can lock up your bikes to, but this is more about celebrating the culture and art of Philadelphia.”

Steuer stresses that both parts of the selection process are equally important. “We don’t want them to be art first and bike racks second, so it’s impossible to actually secure a bike to them.”

From an artistic standpoint, however, Steuer sees the competition benefitting the city in a number of ways. “First of all, this is a great bicycling city and there’s a significant demand for bike racks. So, adding additional bike rack capacity is very much needed. But beyond that, it’s a way of rethinking what’s known as street furniture — bike racks, benches, bus shelters — which can be pedestrian or even ugly, in which case they’re taking away from the beauty of the built environment.

“Philadelphia is a great city in terms of its heritage, its design, its historic sites, and also its world-renowned collection of public art,” Steuer continues. “One of the great things about that collection is that it’s art that is accessible and free and that people encounter in the course of their daily life. They walk down a street and all of a sudden there’s a sculpture or a mural... These bike racks will have that same effect.”

story by Shaun Brady