The Solar Bike Tree

The Bike Tree grew out of an idea I had when I worked at the Vancouver Compost Demonstration Garden. We shared the building with an environmental group  that felt we needed another bike rack. There was already one bike rack in one of only four parking spots and we didn’t want to take up another space. Not that I’m all about the car, I don’t even own one. But we did have people from all over the city attending wormshops and organic gardening courses and the parking around the building was for residents only. The environmental group wanted to put in a large, (hideous) covered bike rack in the lot. I think I might have said ever so sweetly, “Over my dead body.”

Initially, I proposed doing a kind of “bike mural” on the large, blank wall of the building leading up the driveway. The bikes could then be hung on the wall and become part of the mural. That way there would be no wasted space and the art would be functional. I envisioned bikes happily hanging within a colourful mural about growing food in the city perhaps with some living plants woven into the piece.

I received no support for that idea. They said there wasn’t enough clearance for cars and trucks and the bikes might be hit. But I felt sure there was plenty of room for two way traffic. I had the same experience when I came up with the idea to construct a garden gate made of recycled gardening tools that would lift straight up instead of slide up and in like a garage door. Five men told me it couldn’t be done, but finally my brother Todd figured out how to do it using a pulley system. He did a rough sketch with flowerpots suspended from chains. We found the right artist. Davide Pan, a local metal sculptor designed that gate using large boulders strapped in metal as the counterbalancers instead of flowerpots – for more uniform weight. He then designed a second smaller one, an echo of the first, for the other garden entrance.

After much discussion, I recommended a bike “tree” for a space out in front of the building in the waterwise garden. I initially called it the “Grow Natural” tree to promote our natural yard and garden care program. The bikes could be hung off and locked to the tree, and like the garden gate would again be functional art.

The bike tree never happened before I left the garden. But four years ago, on a whim, I decided to throw in a proposal to the City of Vancouver‘s  public art program. Much to my surprise, I got the grant and thus began a very, very long ride.

Initially I pitched the project as akin to the BC Lion’s Society Whale Sculpture project  where a bunch of artists are selected to paint a standard whale sculpture. The sculptures are displayed around the city and then auctioned off. The Lion’s Society has gone on to do bears and eagles and well some question whether or not a bear painted up as Darth Vader is really art. But that is not for me to say.

I didn’t necessarily want a uniform bike tree; I thought we could commission artists to design them for specific sites. A mural here, a clock tower there. Still this first one would be a prototype of sorts.

And so we began. My non-profit partner was Better Environmentally Sound Transportation (BEST). They linked me up with the cycling community and served as “bankers” for the project. Science World was delighted to have the first bike tree at their site. And a very desirable location it was: close to the 2010 Olympics Athletes’ Village, and at the confluence of three major cycle paths, including the city’s premiere Central Valley Greenway. The Science World folks became ardent supporters and tireless cheerleaders as the project dragged on.

Initially Davide signed on to be the artist. During that first year, we paid a visit to Kent Webster at Webster Solar Energy. We were thinking of having a solar or wind-powered bike levitation system (similar to the garden gate). So the bikes would be lifted up out of harm’s way and locked in some clever fashion.  In our research, we had found an elaborate, expensive modular Bike Tree system from Switzerland. The high-security bike storage unit mechanically lifted bikes four metres off the sidewalk. Problem was it looked more like an ATM than a sculpture. In fact, the system used a smart card. We also talked about a recharging mechanism for electric bikes.

There were other cool “bike trees” too, some bike racks, some art.  (Just google bike tree and look at “image results.”) We weren’t short of ideas;  but our  loftier goals were downsized considerably over time. Through all its evolutions, Kent stuck with the project, volunteering most of his time as our solar consultant.

After a year of working on the project, Davide was unable to continue due to other commitments. And so, I went in search of another artist. There were a few false starts and then one night I saw an artist on TV who looked promising. She was talking about a sculpture her company had done in front of Ocean Cement. It was all gadgety and fun and in the same spirit as the bike tree. I called, and Mike Vandermeer and Cheryl Hamilton from ie Creative Artworks became the new project artists. I felt very lucky to have them on board.

Mike and Cheryl have created sculptures throughout the province and across the country, including one in Kelowna to celebrate the opening of the new WRB Bennett Bridge; one in front of the new Richmond Speed Skating Oval; and one at the Richard and Annette Bloch Cancer Survivors Park in Ottawa. They are currently working on a commission in Dallas.

We had to design the piece to prevent people from climbing the trunk and there were many compromises along the way. But Mike and Cheryl came up with a great design and made  a model to help me sell it to the various partners. The stylized tree would stand about 15 feet high, with three small and three large hoops that formed a kind of canopy; a trunk that bikes could hang from; and at its 14 foot diameter base, a root system where up to 12 bikes could be parked in more traditional fashion.

Ok, so you’d think with the design in place we should have just been able to get that thing made and in the ground. But little did I know that I would have to jump through more than six hoops before this baby was installed.

The decision on the location took probably a year. It was complicated because of all the parties involved. Science World owned some of the land in the area. The City another piece. The Park Board another. It was a long and bumpy road, but the Park Board finally found us a nice spot on their land, in front of Science World. It would replace a street lamp at the end of an arc of large trees in planters, becoming one of the “trees” in effect.

There were many meetings, people coming and going throughout the project, some slowing it down, some helping to advance it. The City Public Art Program staff were consistently wonderful to work with, patient and supportive. Two avid cyclists and active members of the cycling community consulted on the project from the start. Bonnie Fenton, with the Vancouver Area Cycling Coalition (VACC) at the time (she has since moved to Germany!) and Richard Campbell (who was with BEST then, but has now moved on) made essential contributions. They helped us figure out tricky measurements and essential elements for a “best practices” bike rack.

One major glitch was when we discovered that the area in front of Science World was actually a deck, literally a “balcony” suspended over water (False Creek). The deck was built for Expo 86 and there didn’t seem to be many decipherable records left nor people who could tell you what the deck was made of, nor whether or not it was safe to anchor the bike tree to it. That probably cost us another year and we burned through one engineering firm there. The engineers were also challenged because they didn’t have experience with public art and so their version of the sculpture looked more like a tank.

In the meantime, I had noticed a solar street lamp when I was riding along the sea wall one day. The beautiful elegant lamp was located at Sunset Beach near the Vancouver Aquatic Centre. I did a little research and found out it was a pilot project with the City, BC Hydro and the British Columbia Institute of Technology. I got ahold of the City’s electrical engineer on the project and he became one of my guardian angels. Without his help, this project never would have been completed. He put me in touch with BC Hydro and they generously agreed to fund the solar component.

The solar complicated the piece beyond my wildest nightmares. Four solar panels would be set into the hoops. We would also tie into the city’s electrical grid as a back-up. Our grey, rainy climate is not optimum for solar systems. Motion activated solar lighting would provide an added security measure. All the electrical components would be housed in a battery box that sat in the crook of the tree. Sounds so simple. Another year.

Park Board engineers and electricians stepped in and went above and beyond the call of duty to get the bike tree wired up properly. They had to reroute, rewire and do a whole bunch of “re’s” to make the system work for us and to give them access to the electrical after it was installed.

In the early summer of 2009, Fast+Epp came on board as our new structural engineers. And they lived up to their names, very fast, very ept. We had construction drawings in no time. Both engineers looked about 14, but they were creative, flexible and knew their stuff. They had worked on several art projects before which really helped. The firm recently won an award for its work on the Richmond Oval.

In December, we brought in Sea-Jay Contracting to do the concrete pour. Chris Gurden and his crew did an amazing job drilling into frozen ground and finally getting the concrete poured in very cold weather. The pipes were now at the pipe bender. Once they were bent, Mike and Cheryl would do the welding, drilling and grinding in their studio. Then it would go out for sandblasting, galvanizing and painting – we had selected a deep rainforest green shade. We had a fabrication schedule, but it was merely a suggestion as it turned out.

The first install date was set for Dec 18th. We missed it. The second was Jan. 6th. We missed it. No need to go into the reasons. And now we were fighting with the impending Winter Olympics. They were to begin Feb. 12th, but there were more and more road closures; the street in front of Science World would be closed as of January 15th and as of Jan 20th, Science World would be turned over to the Russians. The city of Sochi was the chosen site for the 2014 Olympics and they were using the building for their pavilion.

I prayed the third try would be the charm. On Thurs. Jan. 14th, after nine hours in the pouring rain, the Solar Bike Tree was finally installed. Mike was in western Mexico drinking Margarita’s. Kent was in eastern Mexico drinking Margarita’s. But Cheryl was there with me, intermittently drinking hot tea. And Chris Gurden stepped in again, not only as the crane truck operator, but to help Cheryl with the installation.

Kent sent one of his solar installers to us on very short notice. Pete from PJ’s Electric was an electrician and a godsend. The job was a lot more complicated than he’d expected. He had to run out during the day to get various parts including smaller batteries. They wouldn’t fit in the battery box or “nest” after all, even though we thought we had the measurements down.   He had to hook up all the many wires to the batteries, charger, etc. in the nest and thread them through the pipes and into the ground. In the end, we bought the nest from Lee Valley Tools and modified it a bit. It was a copper hose storage pot with a lid that had a little bird on top. The weather resistant padlocks were also purchased there and the bike hooks. Unfortunately with the hooks we used you could only use  a cable lock to secure your bike to the trunk; but U-locks could still be used at the base.

Science World staff made several appearances, keeping our spirits up and most importantly making sure the electricity was turned off so we wouldn’t all get electrocuted in the rain. The Park Board electricians and the City electrical engineer checked in with us during the day. Richard Campbell dropped by, as did staff from VACC and BC Hydro.

There were many glitches during the day, but the team just met each one as they arose and came up with a solution. We were all tired, soaked and chilled to the bone. But just after 4pm, Chris lifted the top section of the tree onto the trunk. It was already dusk and the tree hung off the crane in a wall of mist. It looked eerily beautiful. The crew bolted it down.

I had ridden over in the rain that morning; I hung my bike from one of the three hooks on the trunk . The lights came on. “They work,” said a happy Pete. It was quite a moment.

When my BC Hydro partner came by that day, he asked if I could do up a brief final report. I said no problem, I would be doing one for the City anyways.

“Put in a little about the potential for more bike trees,” he said. I looked at him like he was out of his mind.

“I’m in my NEVER AGAIN phase,” I said.

There had been a few inquiries – from a community centre, an environmental group and the BC Auto Association, a nice fit for their new roadside bike service assist program. But so far, no one had shown me the money. And the money would have to be double what we did this one for; I was no longer a willing volunteer.

All I hope for now is that cyclists will use the bike tree. And maybe more kids will want to ride their bikes to Science World so they can park at the bike tree. And maybe more businesses will want bike racks in front of their offices.

After everyone left, I stood there in the rain and the dark, looking at the tree. I wasn’t sure how I felt. Although I had lived with the idea of that tree for many years, it looked strange and unfamiliar. A friend said to me the next day that it was a birthing and the gestation period is a very different time than when the baby emerges, a living, breathing creature.

I knew this project was not really about making environmental art or creating a unique bike rack that would promote alternative transportation. It was an endurance test to be sure, a very long lesson on patience and tolerance. Over and over again, I had to let go of my schedule to allow things to unfold in their own time. Instead of being ambitiously goal oriented, the bike tree project taught me to be more perseveringly path oriented.

Before he left, Pete, wise man and electrician said to me, “It was torrential and you still rode your bike here. You stood in the rain all day. And you finished well.”

Finishing well was important to me. But I confess that my bike and I rode home in a cab that day.


Due to the Olympics, the official launch was delayed until June 2010. We will join VACC for their Bike to Work Week BBQ event on Friday, June 4th from 4:30 pm to 7:00 pm in Creekside Park in front of Science World.  There will be entertainment, displays and programming from the bike community and  some of our partners. We will also celebrate the start of Bike Month and a new event, Velopalooza modeled after Portland’s Pedalpalooza. Mayor Gregor Robertson, a bike enthusiast, will be there at 5:30pm to christen the sculpture.

7 Replies to “The Solar Bike Tree

  1. Congratulations –your bike tree’s fabulous. We need more of them in the city…what great functional art. Maybe when you’ve recovered from this long haul, you’ll tackle a few more. Maybe you could merge your creative ideas –Your gate was made (in part) of used garden tools –Its brilliant & so artistic! So, how about bike trees that contain used bike parts. Yeah, yeah, it’s easy for on-lookers to throw out our ideas, but it’s more important to bring vision to reality –and you went the distance. So congrats again!

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