Parking and Locking Your Bike: Rules and Guidelines

If you've ever pedaled to a new part of the city or to a new location in another part of town, you've probably encountered a situation where you had options to park and lock your bike—to a tree, to a sign post, to a fence, etc.—but you weren't sure if those options were legal (or wise).

In this post, we'll discuss the legality of parking/locking your bike to certain structures, as well as the wisdom of doing so. In other words, we'll discuss whether you're legally allowed to lock your bike to a tree / street sign / etc. and then we'll discuss the chances your bike will be stolen if and when you do lock you bike up to that structure. Rules and regulations are different in every single city and town in the United States and Canada, but these are some useful guidelines.

Keep in mind, this is not a post about how to safely lock up your bike so that it won't be stolen—we discuss that in many other posts—this is post is an answer to the question, "What can I lock my bike up to?" and "What am I *not allowed* to lock my bike up to?"

We'll start with the "no-go" areas:

Where You Should Not Park and Lock Your Bike​

In this section, we'll list the type of bicycle parking, whether it's legal, and whether it's a dumb thing to do, and then we'll details some other ideas you should think about.

For legal reasons, we should probably state the only place where it's usually 100% legal to park a bike is at a public bike rack or in a garage that's in the business of car parking and bike parking. Because the laws are different in every city and town, with most other options, there's an element of risk.

Locked to Trees: Illegal; Unwise​

Most cities have strict rules against locking bikes to trees, and there's a reason for that: trees are expensive, and the cities that plant trees want to protect their investment. New York City had a project called "MillionTreesNYC," where former mayor Michael Bloomberg made a goal to plant 1,000,000 throughout the five boroughs that make up New York City. That's a LOT of trees—it was called a ridiculously unreasonable goal by many—and the cost of the project was expensive: through public and private funding, the project cost more than $350 million dollars.

They pulled it off—they reached the million-tree goal in 2016—but they spent a lot of money, and the mayors of New York City, past and present, want to protect those trees, and locking a bike to a tree can damage the bark and inhibit the growth or life span of the tree.

The penalty in NYC for locking your bike to a tree? ONE THOUSAND DOLLARS. For real—$1,000.00. Think about that for a second—when you get a ticket for speeding in your car, it's a couple hundred bucks. When you get a ticket for locking your bike to a tree, it's one thousand dollars. That's crazy. New York City—and many other cities—are very, very serious about their "don't lock your bikes to our trees" law.

Plus, it's also a little unwise: not all trees are sturdy, and given the right tools, a highly motivated thief—and there are plenty of those—can cut down a small tree and make off with your ride.

So, trees are a no-go.

Locked to Street Signs: Sometimes Legal; Not Always Wise​

This is another guideline that's very dependent on the city you live in. Some cities have strict laws against locking bikes to signs; others don't have rules, but discourage it.

The real danger with locking your bike to a street sign is two-fold:

1) This is the obvious reason: street signs aren't always that sturdy, and your bike could get lifted. If you've locked your bike to a sign in a shady, and especially a shady-and-not-often-travelled part of town, the chances of your bike getting lifted rise dramatically, and

2) The not-so-obvious reason: on rare occasions—usually for security reasons—the city will forcibly remove your bike, even if it hasn't been there too long. On more than one occasion, NYC has removed bicycles from street signs and then impounded them before the presidential motorcade came through. NYC police were tasked with making the route as safe as possible, and came through and hauled all the bikes off, to be certain that there weren't any explosive devices hidden among bikes locked to street signs. If there's a VIP coming through your city, it's something keep in mind.

If you do lock your bike to a street sign, "best practices" is to make sure that your bike is not obstructing pedestrian traffic on the sidewalk where you've locked it. Regardless of whether it's legal to lock a bike to a street sign, if you're interfering with pedestrian traffic—and impeding business as you do so—that's a very quick way to have the police visit and haul your bike off.

Again, if you're only locking your bike up for a few minutes, you're probably fine; if you're going to be a while, it's not always wise.

Chained to Sucker Poles: Sometimes Legal; Always Unwise​

This is a lot like the last entry, but it deserves its own section: a sucker pole is a street sign that is especially wobbly. Bike thieves—that is, thieves who steal a lot of bikes—have a network of sucker poles throughout a city, and they visit them to see if there are any easy targets. They're like fishing poles, but instead of catching fish, sucker poles catch bikes. And suckers.

Here are some guidelines to tell if a street sign is a sucker pole:​

  • It's loose and it wiggles back and forth. A sign like that can be easily lifted out of the ground, and thieves pay close attention to signs like that;
  • It has no sign at the top. It sounds silly, but a LOT of bikes have been stolen by motivated thieves who lifted bikes up and off a pole that used to have a sign on it; and
  • It's made of wood. A sucker pole doesn't have to be a traffic sign or street sign; it can be a wooden fence, or something that's made of breakable/cut-able material.

It sounds ridiculous that bike thieves would go to these lengths to nab your bike, but a lot of them are truly aggressive: they make a LOT of money selling lifted bikes, and, sadly, a lot of bicycle theft is motivated by drug addiction.

So, avoid chaining your bike to a sucker pole. It may (or may not) be legal, but it's very, very unwise.

On Scaffolding: Probably Not Legal; Unwise​

In any given city, there's usually a lot of construction going on. Builders erect scaffolding—temporary structures usually built out of wood or metal poles—to help them scale the heights on the inside or the outside of a building. In a lot of cities, building projects take a long time, and scaffolding can be out on the street for a while.

While it's probably illegal to lock your bike to scaffolding—we couldn't find any laws or regulations about it—it's not the best idea. Thieves unscrew scaffolding bars and take bikes, and, eventually, construction workers take scaffolding down after the project is over, and they simply leave anything tied to the scaffolding on the street.

The real issue is time. The longer your bike is locked to scaffolding, the more likely it is you're going to lose that bike. That's the whole point of scaffolding—it's a non-permanent structure that's built to eventually be taken down. Note that we don't mean, "It's a bad idea to lock your bike to the scaffolding by your office and never unlock if for three weeks," we mean, "It's a bad idea to lock your bike to the scaffolding every day, even if you're retrieving it every evening." If the crew takes apart the scaffolding while you're at work, they're going to leave your bike on the street and someone is going to take it (or, they might even take it themselves).

To Any Part of a Subway Entrance: Illegal; Unwise​

Subways are the lifeblood of any city system, because they bring people to different places, and people spend money at those different places. Cities and city officials care very, very deeply about enabling people to travel to different parts of the city so that they can make money and spend money. And, if you're obstructing peoples' ability to get to different parts of the city to spend money, city officials freak out.

That's why there are usually pretty strict laws that disallow bikers from chaining their bikes to any part of a subway entrance, including the bars that make up the structure of the subway entrance. They want to ensure that there will be nothing obstructing the ability of commuters to get to work and to get to play.

If you do lock your bike to a subway structure, it's likely that your bike will be taken (as the bike in these photos are), and you'll have to contact the city's Lost Property Unit, or whatever agency handles seized property. It's also a very bad idea to lock your bike to...

Bus Stop Signs: Illegal; Unwise​

Same thing as subways structures. One of the city's highest priorities is to get people where they're going, and they're usually very strict about "no-locking-bikes-to-bus-signs" rules. Avoid.

To Parking Meters: Usually Illegal; Unwise​

The shape of parking meters has changed over time—most cities used to have one meter per spot, but many now have one or two meters per street, where people can purchase parking tickets—but it doesn't really matter what shape the meter is: anything that the city uses to make money is something you don't want to lock your bike to. The amount of money that cities make through metered parking is kind of insane, and city officials and police will be much quicker to remove a bike that's locked to a parking meter than they would to a street sign. Avoid if at all possible.

To Nothing: Perfectly Legal; Very Unwise​

If you're reading this post, chances are you are already in the habit of locking your bike, but if that's not the case—always lock your bike! Even if you're just running into a bodega or getting something from your local supermarket, an unlocked bike is... well, in many places, it's as good as gone. You'll have to log onto Craig’s List or eBay and see if you can buy it back from whomever stole it.

Also—be careful to take with you anything that's easily removable. If you've got removable front or rear lights, take those off when you're locking up, and if at all possible, take your seat with you as well.

A Quick Note About "Legal" and How Police Penalize Bikers​

An alternative title for this section would be, "If I Break the Law, What are the Chances I'll Get Caught?"

Are we saying, "Reader, have a relaxed attitude towards your city's biking laws and simply play the odds?" No. Obviously, you should obey all of your city's biking laws at all times.

That said, even if you've been cycling for only a few days, you've probably noticed: cities enforce biking laws haphazardly. Most cities—even the safest ones—have some serious crimes being committed at any given moment, and the focus of city officials is usually on the physical safety of its citizens, and not the safety of their bicycles. For the most part, city police have bigger fish to fry.

So, many cyclists break the law for a while and get away with it for a long period of time... only to have their bikes carted away one day, and then say, "I've been locking my bike to that tree for years! What gives?"

If you're locking your bike up to a "perhaps not legal" structure, keep in mind that "time and tide wait for no man"—the longer you lock your bike to illegal/unwise structures, the more likely it is that you'll get ticketed and/or fined and/or have your bike stolen. Luck plays a part, for sure, but it's repetition that usually gets you.

For legal purposes, we should probably repeat: obey the law! Having your ride carted off—either by thieves or the police—is a crying shame.

Where You CAN Park Your Bike​

So, we've talked about the no-fly zones—the areas where you should NOT park your bike. What are the places that are a good choice?

The first and most obvious choice is public bike racks. We'll go over that. However, there are also some not-to-obvious options—including some options that certain cities require certain businesses to offer—and those options can be really helpful. Let's take a look.

Bike Racks and Stands​

These are always the first thing you're looking for. There are different types of bicycle racks on city streets, including U-racks (these look like upside-down "U"s); wave racks (sometimes called "serpentine racks") that look like a bunch of U-racks put together; bollard-style racks (sometimes called "ring racks") which are basically big circles on a post; and grid-style racks (sometimes called "ladder racks") that are the old-school types of racks you'd see outside of high schools. There are also double-decker racks that allow users to stack their bikes—these are great for small spaces—and decorative racks, which are bikes racks fashioned to look like bicycles or a local item of interest (for example, there are a few racks near Wall Street in NYC that look like giant dollar signs). For images of the different types of racks, check this page or this one.

A wave rack (aka, a "serpentine rack") for locking up bicycles. Cities use various different types of racks, depending on the location of the rack and the needs of local bikers.

These are legal and wise and usually free—the trifecta of bicycle parking. They should always be the first choice if you need to lock up your ride.

Bike Shelters​

These are similar to bike racks, but they're usually covered structures that keep your bicycle safe from the elements. They're usually located near subway stops, bus stops, and locations of interest, like a music venue or a downtown business area. If you go online and search for your city's name and "bike shelter," you'll usually find a map of where bike shelters are located. If you're a daily bike commuter, these are a fantastic option.

Parking Lots, Garages, and Indoor Rentable Spaces​

Believe or not, cities want you to bike: biking makes people healthy, and healthy people are happier and—with politics, it always comes back to money—they cost less and they make more: they have lower health bills and they earn more. Cities are, slowly but surely, trying to convince residents to bike, and because more people hop on bikes when they're certain there will be bike storage when they reach their location, cities have actually passed laws required parking lots and parking garages to provide parking spots for bicycles.

The laws in some cities are kind of relaxed—in NYC, parking lots with 100 or more spaces must provide bicycle parking—but in San Francisco, any parking lot or garage with ten or more spaces must provide parking spaces for bikes. You can get short-term parking for a few hours or a few days, or you can opt for long-term parking, and you can sign a contract and store your bike in a garage for as long as you like (and rates are usually reasonable—it's not hard to find parking for $100 per year).

If you're like most people, the idea of paying for bicycle parking is kind of irksome. Why pay for parking, when you can ride around the bike and look for free parking?

There are certain situations where paid bicycle parking is a fantastic idea:​

  • You've got a really expensive bike. For many cycling aficionados, this is the most important reason. If cycling is important to you and you've spent thousands of dollars on a bike—yes, bikes can get very expensive—you want to protect it to the best of your ability.
  • If you commute to work and you need to arrive at a certain time, cycling around the neighborhood to find parking can take a while. If there's a garage near your office and you want a no-fuss, no-muss park-and-lock situation, it's a great option.
  • If you live in an apartment, you may not want to keep your bike in your living space. Garages offer reasonable rates and allow you to use all of the space in your apartment, and not dedicate part of that space to bike storage.

If you do look into garages or lots, just make sure you'll have 24-hour access to your bike. Arriving at your garage to find that you're unable to retrieve your bike is a bummer.

Indoors at Wherever It Is You're Going​

Offices and restaurants and some larger bars are slowly coming around to the idea of letting people bring their bikes inside. This won't be an option for a lot of destinations, but you'll be surprised at how many places will let you bring your bike indoors. Can't hurt to ask.

Special Employee-Only Opportunities​

This is one of those options that many people don't know about. Some cities and municipalities offer incentives to people who choose to bike to work, and offer parking plans and discounts at local garages. As we mentioned—they want you to bike, and many local governments offer perks to workers who do. Something to check out.

Private businesses are also encouraging employees to commute via bicycle (healthy employees keep the costs of companies' health care plans low), and you should check with your company's HR person to see if there are any perks available to you. You might even ask them to install some kind of indoor parking at your job site. Yes, this is kind of a pipe dream—many of us are simply glad to have jobs, and can't walk around making demands for indoor bike racks and higher salaries and whatnot—but if there are enough folks who hop on a bike to commute to your office, it's a reasonable request, and what's the worst they can say? It's "No." That's the worst they can say, so why not give it a shot?

Bike Valet​

These are a lot less common, but certain events in urban settings feature a bike valet. Concerts in public parks often feature a bike valet, and more and more venues—particularly outdoor music venues and larger beer gardens—have a bike valet system. If you've got plans to go to one such venue, call ahead and see if they offer bike parking.

Tips and Etiquette​

These guidelines that follow aren't laws; these are just the social niceties that keep our society from descending into anarchy and chaos. When parking your bike or locking it to something, it's polite to...​

  • Avoid hogging the whole rack. Every year, cities are putting in new bike racks, but that doesn't mean that there's endless parking for all cyclists. Position your bike so that you're not taking up the whole back rack.
  • Be sure you're not locking your bike to another bicycle. If this has happened to you, it's probably ruined your day. When parking and locking up, make sure you're not tied to another biker.
  • Refrain from locking your bike to the fence at the front of someone's house or apartment or brownstone (even if you may not get in trouble for it). Poor form.
  • Keep from locking your bike to a rack or to a street sign and leaving it there. If you need long-term storage, go to a garage or take your bike into your home; when you leave it attached to a public storage unit, it robs others of the opportunity to park their own bikes there (and over time, it increases the chances of your own bike being stolen).

If You Bicycle Commute and Bike Parking in Your City is Awful

Consider a foldable bike. They look weird, and they're not the same as your high-end road bike, but they're a fantastic option when it comes to urban cycling. They're solid, they're sturdy, and they collapse down to a workable size, so that you can bring them into the office or cafe or subway or wherever it is you're going. You can't bring them into any establishment—a crowded restaurant may have some issues with you lugging a bike inside—but foldable bikes are a pretty good solution to the "there's nowhere to lock my bike" issue.

This Is One of Those Topics That...​

Confuses a lot of people, and one that people have questions—and strong feelings—about. Just keep in mind—the laws pertaining to bike parking are often unclear, even to police officers. They may take your bike/ticket you even when you don't legally deserve it. If you want to play it 100% safe, stick to public bike racks, parking garages, and/or indoor bike parking provided by employers or businesses.​

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