Bad Bike Racks: Coathangers

We’re starting a series of blog posts focused on describing why bad bike racks are bad.  Each will be evaluated based on eight factors: lockability, security, stability, wheel protection, space efficiency, accessibility & inclusivity, visibility & attractiveness, and user experience.

Why Coathanger Racks Are Terrible

Coathanger racks are distinguished with its coathanger-shaped triangle rungs that are welded to a horizontal bar.  Coathanger racks were first created by the company Cora Bike Rack, which is based in Australia and has an outpost in Bellingham, Washington; the company markets its bike racks as “Expo” racks.  Other bike rack companies also manufacture similar racks, often with either square or loop coathangers instead of the triangles.

Lockability

The bike rack should allow the frame and both wheels to be locked with conventional high‐security locks, especially U‐locks. The rack should also allow for locking both the rear and front wheels to account for the bicyclist’s preference and differences in bikes.

A coathanger rack allows both the frame and one wheel to be locked to the rack.  However, any bike with a forward handlebar set or front porteur rack will have great difficulty locking in the standard way to the rack, and so bicyclists with such bikes will likely have to lock to the outside bars, which are much thicker. These 2.5-inch to 3-inch gauge bars are so wide that it can be impossible to use a standard-sized U-lock to lock-up a bike.

Assessment: Mixed

Security

Racks should be constructed with materials that are difficult to cut and should be bolted to the ground such that it cannot be unscrewed from the ground.

The coathanger triangle rungs are made of a thin metal. Thieves routinely use electric-powered metal grinders to saw through the 1.75″ gauge galvanized steel pipe on typical staple and inverted U racks.  Those same grinders would have a much easier time cutting through the thin metal of the triangle rungs.

Assessment: Fail

Stability

The bike rack should support the bicycle at two contact points, preferably one point near the front wheel and the bicycle’s down-bar (where a U-lock can be locked), and one point at the back of the bicycle’s frame near the seat post. This helps prevent the bicycle from falling over and provides two distinct places to lock a bicycle’s front and back wheels.

Bike racks should also be a minimum of 30 inches tall to allow bicycles to lean against the rack without putting pressure on the wheels and to enable a lock to pass through the frame and at least one wheel. This height also has the benefit of reducing tripping hazards.

Coathanger racks do not provide two points of contact, and fail to provide any contact higher than the locking point at about 18″ in height.  In addition, the coathanger triangle bar is very thin, which means there’s an unusual amount of loose space when a bike is locked up to the triangle.  With a its low contact point, no second contact point, and thin triangle bar, the coathanger

Assessment: Fail

Wheel Protection

The bicycle rack must not bind or trap the wheels of the bicycle independent of the frame, or the wheels will bend if the bicycle gets knocked over. When the bicycle is supported in two places, this is less likely to happen.

The coathanger rack does not bind or trap wheels in order to stabilize the bike in place. So while a full coathanger rack can result in a lot of bikes that are jammed into one another, it does pass this standard.

Assessment: Adequate

Space Efficiency

People often presume that Coathanger racks can hold more bikes and therefore are more space efficient.  But this is wrong.

The most space efficient coathanger rack is Cora’s largest: the ten-bike rack.  According to the company’s own specifications, it requires at least six feet from the top bar in both directions, and at least 18 inches on either side.  That’s about 102 square-feet of needed space for simply leaving the bikes locked up.

But that doesn’t account for needed room to maneuver bikes into position along a wall-side of a rack, which could easily necessitate another 30 to 47 square-feet of space, for a total required space of 132 to 149 square-feet to lock-up the theoretical 10 bikes on the rack.

For comparison, a set of five staple racks would also hold ten bikes.  With three-foot spacing and two feet on either side of the racks, the set of five staples would take up 112.5 square-feet.

A set of five staples is both more space efficient and much easier for people to access the racks and lock-up their bikes than a ten-bike coathanger rack.

Assessment: No Clear Benefit, Possibly Less Space Efficient

Accessibility & Inclusivity

Racks should be able to correctly accommodates the wide variety of bikes used by people of all ages and abilities, including bicycles with fenders, rear panniers, and front racks/platforms; longbikes and xtracycles; tagalongs & trailers; Metrofiet, Bullitt, and Madsen cargo bicycles; folding bicycles; and kids bicycles.

On racks designed for more than two bicycles, bicyclists should not be forced to cram their bikes into one-another in order to be parked. The bicycles need to be protected from potential damage. In addition, bicyclists should be able to easily access their bicycle (and its panniers), without knocking into other bicycles parked on the rack.

Coathanger racks meet none of these requirements.  In order to meet the theoretical capacity of a coathanger rack, handlebars must overlap. With lots of bikes already on the rack, it can be difficult for bicyclists to reach in and lock-up their bike.  And with no second point of contact for the backend of the bike, seven-to-ten foot long cargo and family bikes have difficulty staying stable.

Assessment: Fail

Visibility & Attractiveness

A highly visible rack lets bicyclists know where they can park their bikes and provides a greater level of public awareness that bicycling is considered socially acceptable/desired.  In addition, because bike racks are one of the most ubiquitous pieces of street furniture, a uniform, visually appealing rack has a substantial impact on a city’s aesthetic and should be encouraged.

Aesthetics really are a personal preference.  But rarely are coathanger racks painted in a bright color in order to encourage visibility, and often the material is left as galvanized steel, which we think is the ugliest street furniture material that can be used.  In addition, for people who are unaware that the coathanger rack is actually a bike rack, it is also likely a very odd shape that’s quite confusing.

Assessment: Unattractive

User Experience

A bike rack should be simple and easy for a bicyclist to understand how to use properly.

Coathanger racks are not easy to understand for the uninitiated. Should the bicyclists lock-up the front or rear? Should the every coathanger rung be used on each side?  Should both sides of the rack be used?  These are all questions that make proper use of the rack less likely.  In addition, the installers of the rack routinely eliminate half the number of bikes that can lock-up to the rack by putting it up against a wall.

On the other hand, the triangle rungs also necessitate both a wheel and the frame to get locked in order for the bike to stay stable on the rack.  As a result, from anecdotal observation, there seems to be a higher rate of proper locking technique (wheel+frame) on a coathanger rack than on an “inverted U rail rack,” to which Seattle bicyclists often lock up only their frame to the top or middle horizontal rails.

Assessment: Mixed

Final Assessment: Bad

Summary of Assessments:

  • 1 Adequate
  • 4 Mixed
  • 3 Bads

Do you agree with our assessment?
Why do you like or dislike coathanger racks?

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