On a recent Thursday afternoon at peak commute hour, bicycles rolled out of BART's MacArthur station at a rapid clip. Many were retrieved from rows of outdoor racks, a jumble of road bikes and mountain bikes and cruisers and hybrids. Others came from behind the gates, where bike parking in standard U-racks is slightly safer and in even higher demand.
Yet in the half-hour between 5:00 and 5:30, not a single bicycle went into or out of the station's ultra-secure electronic storage lockers. That's because the lockers offer a total of only forty individual spaces — twelve of which happened to be vacant — and they serve a somewhat rarified clientele. A quick study of the lockers' contents through their steel-mesh sides and front gates revealed newer and high-end Cannondale, Schwinn, Specialized, and Bianchi bikes, plus a souped-up fixie or two.
Their owners pay three to five cents an hour to Berkeley company BikeLink, designer and manufacturer of the electronic storage lockers, for the privilege of staying theft- and scratch-free during the workday. And while locker users' numbers may not compare with those willing to stash their bikes outside at no cost, they represent an important contingent of commuters at East Bay BART stations.
Since the first BikeLink lockers went in at El Cerrito Plaza ten years ago, the transit agency has used grant funds to install more than 800 of the $2,900 units throughout the system, including at 29 of the East Bay's 30 stations — with the last one, Walnut Creek, due next year. The electronic lockers, each just large enough to accommodate a single bike, can be accessed via a small debit card available for purchase on BikeLink's website.
BikeLink also manufactures group lockers equipped with similar digital readers, which are currently installed at the Berkeley Bike Station in downtown Berkeley (room for 268 bikes), the Ashby Bike Station (128), and the Embarcadero Bike Station in San Francisco (96). Although these don't operate at capacity — Embarcadero sees about 60 users a day, Ashby 55, and downtown Berkeley 45 — more group lockers are bound for new bike stations at the 19th Street and MacArthur stops in Oakland and at San Francisco's Civic Center. Only BikeLink customers can enter the group lockers, but bikes still must be locked up inside to be secure. BART anticipates demand for secure bicycle parking to steadily increase in coming years, and group storage offers a higher-density solution than individual lockers.
"One of the big, long-term challenges for BART as our ridership continues to grow is getting people to our stations," said bicycle program manager Steve Beroldo — and that includes bicyclists of all stripes, whether their gear costs tens or thousands of dollars. "We want people to feel comfortable and confident about using them." Theft from BikeLink lockers is rare — only a couple incidents have occurred over the last two years throughout the BART system, Beroldo said.
Yet BART is far from BikeLink's only customer. The ten-year-old, sixteen-employee company, which assembles its lockers and electronic readers by hand in a rambling 6,000 square-foot warehouse complex located a few blocks from its modest West Berkeley headquarters, produced between five hundred and six hundred lockers over the last twelve months, said founder and president Steven Grover. Its lockers have landed at transit stops in cities from Portland to San Diego on the West Coast, and just outside Washington, DC on the East Coast. The City of New York has shown interest, too.
BikeLink has grown at a modest pace to date, Grover said, but that's about to change. Within the next few years, the company could expand its customer base well beyond the current 10,000 registered users by doubling, then tripling its production figures. "We can probably produce ten times as many as we did last year without running into problems with capacity," Grover said.
Some day it just might. Based on word-of-mouth — the company doesn't advertise, yet — BikeLink has received inquiries from South America and throughout Europe. Now that Grover is happy with the locker design — they're in their fifth iteration, and designed to last forty years — the company is ready to start moving units. "Our products have reached a level of maturity where we're really ready to respond to that," he said. International expansion begins in Toronto, Canada, and Newcastle, United Kingdom, within the next twelve months. Before long, it could be Croatia and Scandinavia. "They're calling because they see a need for secure bike parking and not just racks. Typically this is going to be associated with transit, where people are relying on them for their daily transportation, where reliability is critical."
BikeLink certainly isn't the world's only producer of electronic bicycle lockers; competitors include Cycle Safe, based in Michigan, and Southern California's Creative Pipe, Inc. and American Bicycle Security Company. But its success to date and positive outlook are indicative of a broader trend toward secure parking designed to entice a certain class of bicycle commuters.
As the scene at the MacArthur station shows, many bicyclists will settle for free parking at U-racks. But some won't — including novice commuters and recreational riders on brand-new bikes who are hyper-concerned about theft. Perhaps that's why in Pleasant Hill, where bicycle commuting is less entrenched and fewer used bikes are available, BART offers 104 BikeLink lockers, more than double the number at the next-largest station.
"When we survey people, one of the main deterrents is worrying about your bike being stolen," said Renee Rivera of the East Bay Bicycle Coalition. "It's one of the less sexy biking topics, but it's incredibly important."