Petal GR to the Metal

If a group of local visionaries has its way, scads of 8-foot-tall solar powered bicycle racks that resemble  metal trees topped with a canopy of petals may soon be spread throughout downtown Grand Rapids in time for the city's debut on the international art scene -- ArtPrize.

The intent of the visually intriguing metal racks, called Bike Petals, is to provide bike rentals in the European style. For a small fee, patrons would receive identification cards to allow them to unlock bicycles for a time, and then return the bikes to the original or other stands.

With ArtPrize organizers expecting upwards of 10,000 visitors a day during the competition, supporters of Petal GR say the system would showcase the area's commitment to a green lifestyle. To service the throng of visitors, Petal GR hopes to hang 500 bicycles from the futuristic trees.  

Time is tight, and money is in short supply. But those hurdles haven't deterred boosters of Petal GR to have the system in place by mid September when Grand Rapids will undoubtedly attract national attention.

Supporters say the idea isn't as pie in the sky as it first sounds. Anyone can view a rack at 230 E. Fulton near the offices of Design Plus, creator of the Bike Petal, or at the Eberhard Center on the downtown Pew Campus of Grand Valley State University.

Porter Corporation in Holland fabricated the racks, and the company says manufacturing can be completed by the deadline. City officials are considering logistics of placing racks in municipal parking structures, pending a full review of the plan. The selection process is underway for the manufacturer that will make the solar-powered electronics that keep track of bike users' times and bike locations.

To top it off, the project feeds on the creative energy of Jane Lovett, who integrated the ideas of the Design Plus bike rack and the needs of ArtPrize with the potential solution she and her husband, Doug Wondergem, experienced in Europe.

"We were already excited about ArtPrize," says Lovett, owner of Peaches Bed & Breakfast in Grand Rapids, "and after we returned from Paris I saw this incredible vertical bike rack at Design Plus. I told Design Plus we should have these all over the city because it's functional sculpture. If ArtPrize is expecting 10,000 people downtown, some of the people may want to ride a bike from venue to venue as opposed to parking thousands of cars."
ArtPrize, the world's most lucrative art competition, runs from September 23 to October 10 in venues located in a three-square-mile section of downtown Grand Rapids.

"Bike sharing is huge in Europe," Lovett says. She points out that Paris has 23,000 bikes used under the Velib, (free bike) system. 
Bike sharing is a self-serve network of bicycles strategically located around a city. Users pay a small fee, say $40, and receive a number or card that unlocks the bike from its docking station – in this case the Bike Petals. After using the bike, renters return it to any designated docking station. A computer system tracks each bike's computer chip and records who rented the bike, where and when, and where it's returned.

Lovett notes other U.S. bike share programs, such as Washington D.C.'s SmartBike DC and Denver's Denver B-Cycle pilot program, have garnered a lot of public interest. But neither system had the global attention that a bike sharing launch during ArtPrize could potentially generate for Grand Rapids.

Design Plus, an architecture, landscape and interior design firm, created Bike Petal when employees needed a secure way to store the bikes they ride to work. The small parking lot didn't allow space for conventional horizontal bike racks.

"Several of our people believe in biking in the urban environment," says Peter Lazdins, principal. "When Jane saw the Bike Petal outside our offices, she wanted it to be the new symbol of Grand Rapids as a green city that supports biking as an alternative means of transportation."
Petal GR proposes placing some 62 Bike Petals at or near the various ArtPrize venues, and is negotiating with potential sponsors to underwrite the cost of about $4,000 to $5,000 per rack, not including the bikes.

Plans call for riders to subscribe to the service using the rack's electronic system, get their bikes and ride them to their next venue. They have 30 minutes to cruise town without accruing additional costs. Rides over 30 minutes are assessed a fee based on an escalating scale and are billed to the user's credit card. Those fees rack up quickly to encourage users to return the bikes so others can use them.

"I think anything that encourages people to get out of their cars and exercise and be able to see the city in a different way is a great thing," says Suzanne Schulz, Grand Rapids planning director. "ArtPrize organizers plan to provide shuttles to venues, but having people ride bikes means they don't have to worry about parking," Schulz adds. "It's much more flexible."

The height and design of the Bike Petals make them readily visible to users, and Petal GR plans to place the racks in small groupings for convenience. City Parking Services Director Pamela Ritsema says the city is willing to provide space for them within city parking ramps and surface lots near the ArtPrize venues.

"A lot of times there is dead space in our parking lots that's not big enough to park a car," Ritsema says. "That would work for those bike racks, and we’re not opposed to removing a parking space to accommodate a rack."

Ritsema has seen photos of the prototype rack that's in place at Design Plus and is enthused that the racks' solar electronics won't require drilling through the parking lot surfaces to connect to the grid. She was part of an early July meeting with Petal GR to discuss the initiative, but says Petal GR has yet to submit a plan for the number of racks needed and the proposed placements. Even so, she anticipates that the Parking Commission will approve placement once the details are worked out.

"We're more than car parking," she says. "We have bike lockers in most of our parking ramps, we've added bike racks in some and we have scooter parking in two lots. ArtPrize is in a fairly concentrated bikeable area, and riding bikes to each location makes more sense than parking your car, driving six blocks and parking again."

Design Plus selected Porter Corporation, a frame and panel building designer and manufacturer, to produce the Bike Petal. To-date, Porter has produced the first prototype used by Design Plus employees, the prototype installed last week at Eberhard Plaza and four racks GVSU purchased for its Allendale campus. Another eight are in production. None of these feature the electronics package, but the racks qualify for LEED credits for any commercial LEED project that installs it.

"Eighty-five percent of the steel is recycled, the powder coating has zero VOCs and they promote bike riding," says Bill Porter, owner. "We've made four different styles of bike racks before, but none of them are like this. This one makes a very interesting sculpture."
Design Plus's Lazdins says the firm envisions Bike Petal as the next evolution for bike share systems worldwide. The company has sales people in place to represent the product at trade shows, including the American Society of Landscape Architects trade show in Chicago this September. 

"We are also planning to pursue Petal GR after ArtPrize," he says, adding that Design Plus and Lovett hope to make Petal GR a permanent transportation option in downtown Grand Rapids. But the first priority is getting the system in place in time for ArtPrize.

"One way or another we're going to get Bike Petal out there for ArtPrize," he says, "even if we have to have manned stations (instead of the electronic system)."

Deborah Johnson Wood is development news editor for Rapid Growth Media. She can be contacted at [email protected]