Bicycles and Parking

All parking is not created equal

This was originally part of the latest ride report for Raccoon Riders Youth Cycling Club, but this side tale of bike parking problems in Alexandria overtook the original post and I did not want to take away from what a great pizza ride the club did yesterday.

The image you see is nine bikes in a parking spot. There were ten of us, but one of the riders (the other grownup) decided to ‘be courteous’ and lean his bike against the fence. If it is not clear, the parking spot to the right is empty, and there are two parallel spots to the back right (parallel to the green verge between the lot and Belle Haven Road in the background), they are also empty.

When we arrived, we took this spot, as we were wrangling the bikes into the spot, the patio waiter called out to us, here is my recollection of the exchange:

Patio Water: Could you please lean the bikes against the fence? We have a number of elderly patrons and we kind of like to save the spots for them.

Me: Are you asking me or telling me?

Waiter: I am asking, ok I guess I am telling… no, you know what, do what you want.

Me (turning back to kids): Ok gang, we are taking the spot.

Waiter (passively aggressively as we are entering the restaurant): Thanks for your understanding!

There is a famous business school lesson that says the railroads lost out to motor vehicles and airlines because they ‘were in the railroad business,’ while motor vehicles and airlines ‘were in the transportation business.’ This is a fancy way of saying that change came and caught the railroads and before they knew it, it was the 1960’s and they were a shell of their turn-of-the-century steam glory.


When we parked there and Patio Waiter told us not to because elderly people, he was reinforcing a cultural standard that sees the motor vehicle as the only valid means of transport. It is absurd on its face to assume Patio Waiter would respond to a family in a minivan, or a lady in an SUV or a guy in a Corvette taking that spot in the same manner. Those are approved means of transport, and therefore there are no constraints on their use of the spots. This is plain, bald-faced Transit Discrimination.

Further, this attitude discounts the dollars I am about to spend. There were ten of us, and we went in and made a huge order, ate like kings, left a generous tip and left. Patio Waiter does not see a party of ten, he sees illegitimate use of the spot. My money is not good there if I want to use a spot for my bicycles. Meanwhile, I feel fairly certain the inside waiter would agree one parking spot was worth assigning to that tab. Another way of putting this is, no minivan or single vehicle is typically going to disgorge ten patrons, as a ‘normal’ party of ten will arrive in multiple vehicles. We upped the Patron Density per Spot, but that was not acceptable to Patio Waiter because my dollars are worth less due to my transit choices. And that is Transit Discrimination.

My grownup guest rider, a neighbor, wondered aloud why it was a big deal, and would there have even been an issue if there was a bike rack. Probably not, assuming the rack was conveniently located and large enough for most of the bikes. Where we are in the picture, we could see the bikes from our table. A rack off the side or in the employee lot would not be ideally located, and we likely would not have used it. As for the ‘big deal’ of leaning our bikes against the fence, it is a fair question, and at the risk of making too much of principal, I DON’T WANT the club to lean our bikes against the fence haphazard. We want to look organized, we are patrons the same as everyone else and we want to be treated as such.

This is not the first time parking bikes here has led to some sort of issue. Last fall, I had a memorable (in a bad way) exchange with a friend who made it clear in no uncertain terms that he viewed the practice of parking bicycles in ‘car spots’ as ‘extremely, intensely anti-social,’ and ‘teaching the kids all the wrong lessons.’ And as such, he would never ever ever ever ever ever ever ever let his kids ride with the Raccoons, a pledge he has thus far kept.

A few weeks later, eight of us arrived here and took the last open space (I think it was even the same spot you see here), as we were organizing ourselves, a lady in a large vehicle started inching into the spot, giving the universal hand-sign for ‘you morons, I’m a car, get out of the way.’ We exchanged pleasantries before she huffed off to another spot, from which she had to walk an additional 50 feet for her dinner.

We are going to roll in on bikes and spend and we want to be treated the same as customers arriving by any other conveyance.

And just as a matter of comparison, when was the last time you saw someone throw a hissy fit over a motorcycle taking up a whole spot?

About Ben Folsom

Ben Folsom is a founding member of the Bike Commuter Cabal, a worldwide group of transport cyclists dedicated to protecting the rights of all road users and to encouraging people everywhere to ride more. Ben and his bikes live with his family in Alexandria, Virginia.