The evaluation was done in the same manner as for the Sportsworks racks we evaluated a month or two ago---we mounted bikes on the racks, did braking tests, turning tests, and bumpy road tests, checking to see how securely the bikes were held. We also evaluated ease of use, ruggedness of the racks, and looked for maintenance problems. Since it was pouring with rain the whole time, we had a particularly good evaluation of how easy it was to deal with various latches and other mechanisms with cold fingers and slippery parts.
I do not know the manufacturers of the racks that we were evaluating---they were identified to us as the Phoenix rack and the Portland rack, after the two transit agencies that have adopted them (Phoenix, AZ and Portland, OR). Like the Sportsworks racks, the Phoenix and Portland racks hold two bikes crosswise in front of the bus, stabilizing them by having a folding arm that supports the bike. Each rack uses the arm to hold a different part of the bike. The Sportsworks rack uses a spring-loaded arm to hold the front tire. It is very easy to use, but flimsily made and it tends to slip off if not perfectly positioned. The Phoenix rack uses an arm in the middle of the rack to hold the seatpost of the bike---the arm is attached to the bike by means of a Velcro strap. The arm on the Portland rack is hinged near the front wheel and swings up to grip the downtube of the bike with a quick-release jaw.
Of the three arm mechanisms, we found that the Portland one was by far the most secure---bikes showed almost no motion in any of the tests. The Phoenix method seemed adequately secure, but there was some rocking back and forth (particularly on tight turns) especially for bikes with a short wheelbase, which could not fit all the way into the wheel wells provided. The Sportsworks arm was the least secure, and we almost lost a bike when the arm slipped off.
The security of attachment is not the only concern, however. Ease of use provides almost the opposite ordering. The arms of the Portland racks were difficult to get into the correct position, especially on bikes with front fenders, which provided little clearance between the front wheel and the downtube. The quick release on the Portland rack also had some problems---I accidentally tightened it too tight, and had to use about a 50lb pull to open it again (they take more force to open than to close). There were also subtle adjustments available to the shape of the jaw which we did not notice at first, and which most bus riders are not going to have the time to examine and decipher. Considering how many bicyclist do not know how to operate their quick release tires properly, we regarded it as unlikely that everybody would figure out how to adjust and close the more complex Portland jaws correctly.
The Phoenix racks seemed easy the first time we put bikes in them, but when we played with some more, we discovered that the orientation of the pedals as you put the bike in was crucial to the success---on my second attempt I accidentally jammed a pedal under one of the rack support, and had quite a struggle to get the bike out enough to raise the arm. Having a pedal arm between the arm and the seat tube (50% probability) significantly reduced the security of the velcro strap. Also, the easiest way to load one of the bikes was by standing on the left side of the bus---a risk that the SCMTD people really did not like.
The arms of the Sportsworks racks were probably the easiest to use, but none of us were willing to trust our bikes to them. They also allowed the most sway of any of the mechanisms, and so looked insecure even when they were working correctly (this psychological effect is important to attracting bike riders who have expensive bikes).
Ease of use consists of more than just figuring out the arm mechanism. Lifting height is also important---the Phoenix was the lowest of the racks, and the Portland and Sportsworks racks a little higher.
The Portland rack uses Yakima extruded trays to hold the wheels, rather than the wide wheel wells of the Sportsworks and Phoenix racks. The trays held the wheels much better, and were much easier to guide bikes into, but the SCMTD folks were worried about the shin-high sharp edges on the ends of the trays, which could cause injuries to pedestrians.
The arms on all the racks have to be held in a folded-down position when the rack is not holding a bicycle. The latches on the Phoenix rack were hard to operate with cold fingers, and sometimes required three hands to operate (one for the latch, one to raise the arm, and a third hand to hold the bike up while doing this). The Phoenix latches also were not self-closing, and would swing against the bus when the rack was folded up unless the driver got out to fix the problem. The magnetic latches on the Sportworks racks were much easier to use, but seemed flimsy and likely to fail (direct contact with a brittle ceramic magnet). I don't remember any problems with the latches on the Portland racks. We felt that both the Sportswork and the Phoenix designs could be improved by using either a cabinet-style magnetic latch or a large area of Velcro on the side of the arm.
The racks themselves have to be held up against the bus when not in use. All three racks had adequate latches, but they were none of them were very obvious to use. The foot-operated latch of the Portland rack was very slippery when wet, and John had to make 4 attempts at pressing it before his boot stayed on it firmly enough to operate the latch. I'm not sure that any of the latches would work in icy conditions, but that is not a concern here in Santa Cruz.
The SCMTD expects a rack to last the life of a bus (about 10 years), and none of the racks seemed likely to do that. The aluminum of the Portland rack seemed particularly flimsy--it seemed likely that someone stepping on it could bend it out of shape. The basic structure of the Sportsworks and Phoenix racks seemd durable enough, but the hinges of the arms on the Phoenix and Sportsworks racks did not seem sturdy enough. The arm latches seemed likely to jam on the Phoenix rack, and likely to break on the Sportsworks rack. The quick release skewer on the Portland rack could be accidentally unscrewed all the way, losing the skewer and the barrels it screwed into. The plastic jaws of the Portland rack also did not seem likely to last 10 years. The rubber bumper on the arm of the Phoenix rack will probably need replacing every year or two, but it is riveted on, rather than being attached in a more replaceable fashion. The Velcro on the Phoenix rack will probably need annual replacement, but that is an easy, low-cost maintenance item.
Here are my subjective summaries of the three racks (score 1-5, with 5 best): Sportsworks Phoenix Portland security 1 3 5 lifting height 3 4 3 ease of use 4 3 2 ruggedness 3 4 2 pedestrian safety 4 4 2 fits most bikes 4 3 5I did not evaluate some of the other SCMTD concerns (like whether a tow bar could be attached with the rack in place, or whether the driver could see the attachment point of the bike to the rack without getting out of the driver's seat).
The Portland rack, despite its low rating here, may be the best for long-distance bus service, where the driver can help with loading, or for commuter service, where the same bike riders use the racks every day, and can learn how to adjust the rather complicated jaw mechanism to hold their bikes. For local urban routes, the Phoenix racks seemed best, except for their difficulty in handling children's bikes and other short wheelbase bikes. A redesign of the wheel wells could fix that problem.
Sportworks is doing a redesign, based on our earlier comments to them, and they may have another rack for us to test before SCMTD has to make a final decision in April.
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Last updated: 4 April 1999