After a long day of work at the Barker Center, Professor of English and American Literature and Language Peter Sacks locked up his office, turned off the lights and walked outside to retrieve his bicycle.
He found the bicycle as he had left it—except for a large metal clamp locking its frame to the building’s railing.
Bewildered, Sacks called University Operations Services. Then he waited in the dark, for one and a half hours, until University Operations arrived.
“Finally, someone came—to release my bicycle and to reprimand me,” Sacks says.
Sacks’ bike, which he had locked to a railing outside Barker after searching for a spot on the overcrowded bike rack, was allegedly blocking an entrance.
“At that moment, the untenability of the situation became clear,” he says. “There was absolutely no place to lock it on the rack. I haven’t ridden my bike to school since then.”
Overcrowding of these racks is a perpetual problem as hordes of students and some faculty elect to bike to class before the winter sets in. While building superintendents have tried a number of tactics, including removing old bikes and adding new racks, bike riders say they don’t foresee any easy solution.
“I keep checking the rack [at Barker] to see if it has become less congested,” says Sacks, who says he hopes to start riding his bike again if he can find a place to lock it up. “But it’s as crowded as ever.”
Congestion in the Yard
On a rainy Friday afternoon, Pier J. DeMarco ’03 unlocked her bike outside Sever Hall. She says that even on a Friday, it’s difficult to find a spot.
“I only began riding a bike this year because I have classes that are in far-away buildings. I’ve seen the mess the racks cause—it’s absolutely horrible—so I never dared to bring a bike before,” DeMarco says.
This problem has forced students and faculty to find other options. Some go as far as to carry their bikes into their offices or dorm rooms.
Some forgo use of the bike racks in favor of railings and street signs.
Out of convenience, many students simply lock their bicycle wheel to its frame and lean it against a building. This is so common that there is even overcrowding along the walls of buildings such as Sever Hall or the Science Center.
“I leaned my bike against a building for one class period, and when I came back to get it, people had stacked four or five bikes on top of it. I could barely get to my bike through the layers,” DeMarco said.
Biking Home From Class
With the onset of so many recent construction projects, the University is perpetually adding and removing bike racks.
Overall, the campus has seen a net gain in bike racks this year, since new construction projects have incorporated an expanded number of racks into their designs, says Manager of Administrative Operations in Harvard Yard Zachary M. Gingo.
But bicycle rack congestion continues to plague the Houses. Lowell House, which has five bike racks for its over 450 students, has serious problems with lack of rack space, says Superintendent Jay Coveney.
“We never have enough bike racks around here,” Coveney says. “Everyone in the College wants to park their bikes here because we are centrally located—people who want to run errands, go to the MAC and who just live in the House all use our racks.”
Coveney says he has thought about adding more racks to solve the overcrowding predicament, but no solution comes easily.
“I can’t just materialize bike racks—and it’s more of a matter of where to add them because we only have so much available space,” he says.
As a by-product of the roadway work in the Quad this summer, Cabot House received a number of brand-new bike racks that have eased the overcrowding.
“This year, I haven’t seen the same masses of junky bikes on the racks outside the shuttle stops as there were last year,” says Cabot House resident Samantha Graves ’03. “The racks appear a lot less full.”
Last year, Adams House Superintendent Jorge Teixeira added an indoor bike rack after he observed that bicycles locked to parking meters made it impossible to navigate the Plympton Street sidewalk that abuts Adams House.
“Things have been much better since I installed the new rack,” he says.
Yard Operations added a rack to the Yard this year, and replaced several others with larger-capacity racks.
But these additions do not come without extensive planning that must take into account stringent city regulations.
“Depending on where we want to add them, we need to obtain permission from the Cambridge Historical Commission,” Gingo says. “We can’t simply decide to add a rack at a location because we observe that an area could use one.”
Aesthetic appeal is also a factor. Bike racks take up a lot of space, and often installing them translates into displacing trees and bushes.
“You have to place them in a thoughtful manner, or things could look pretty unsightly very fast,” adds Cabot House Superintendent Gene Ketelhohn.
Although the limited number of bike racks available for the Houses and some classroom buildings is the prime source of overcrowding, abandoned and derelict bikes left on the racks claim significant space.
“At Lowell House, there are so many old, decrepit wheels and abandoned, rusty bikes around in addition to the regular in-use bikes that it’s absolutely impossible to find any space,” DeMarco says.
Superintendents say they try to clean the racks a couple of times a year, but it’s often difficult to tell which bikes are abandoned and which are simply old.
“It’s very tricky to identify which bikes are abandoned—we usually end up having to put a notice on the bike if we suspect it of being discarded, and then we cut it off the rack if no one responds,” Ketelhohn says.
Some superintendents have established rules for eliminating forsaken bicycles.
“My criterion is that if a bike is loaded with dust or the chain is rusted solid, then I cut it off and get rid of it,” says Coveney, who cut about 10 bikes off the Lowell racks prior to school opening.
Cutting the Locks
And when bikes block wheelchair access ramps or the railings of stairwells in the Yard and at the Houses, their owners can face even greater inconveniences.
Yard Operations does not remove bikes unless they present an immediate safety hazard, Gingo says.
Instead, they place a special lock on the bike, in turn forcing the owner to contact the Harvard University Police Department to have the bike unlocked. There are no fines for releasing these bikes.
But some House superintendents take a harsher approach.
“If a bike is blocking a walkway or stairway, I will cut the lock off in a heartbeat,” Coveney says. “It is inconsiderate, and it imposes danger.”
Coveney then holds the bike in the Lowell House basement for a week, and if no one comes to claim it, he turns the bicycle over to Phillips Brooks House or Harvard Transportation Services.
At Winthrop House, where many students lock their bikes to the building’s gutters and the parking signs that run along the street, Superintendent David Simms takes a similarly harsh approach.
“We cut a lot of locks, but students don’t seem to complain too much about it,” he says. “They just want their bikes back and they come down to the basement for them pretty quickly.”