Sunday, March 07, 2010

Businesses Cutting Bikes From "Their Property": Is It Legal?

Amid all the good tidings that Red Bowl brought on Saturday was also the reality that some business owners just don't get it. At around 6pm, just around the time that Neighborhood Bike Works was shutting down their valet bike parking, the valets and manager of the Cescaphé Ballroom next door to North Bowl Lanes came out with bolt cutters to cut the lock of a bike parked to a tree-guard in front of their establishment, citing bikes parked on private property. Fortunately we were able to convince them to wait until we paged the owner, who came out and moved the bike.

The question always arises as to whether business owners, building managers and even angry homeowners have the right to confiscate bicycles parked in the public right of way. The answer is not as clear as we would like it to be, however in many cases Pennsylvania law protects the bicyclists:

PA Consolidated Statutes -Title 75
Section 3509. Parking.
(a) Sidewalks.
(1) A person may park a pedalcycle on a sidewalk unless prohibited or restricted by an official traffic-control device.
(2) A pedalcycle parked on a sidewalk shall not impede the normal and reasonable movement of pedestrian or other traffic.

Official traffic-control device refers to the responsible government agency- the Streets Dept, Parking Authority or PENNDOT. But the case with Cescaphé is not cut and dry. The private property argument arose when we asked as why they were cutting bike locks. The law does not specifically address fences, tree guards and street trees. The tree guard that the cyclist locked to may be private property but it may also have been part of a streetscape project paid for with public money. Cescaphé is not alone here, in the past we got wind of security warnings and lock cuttings taking place at the American Physicians Building, WHYY, Hopkinson House, several office complexes on JFK Blvd and Market St West and even Lincoln Financial Field.

The lack of bike parking in Northern Liberties is the root of the problem. More bike racks and a bikes in buildings ordinance would bring this silly culture war to an end. However it will be a long time before bike parking is everywhere so the issue of "who can confiscate bikes when" needs to be addressed. It is also important to report these incidents to the Police.

And a final point that shouldn't be overlooked, North Bowl was able to comfortably park nearly 200 bikes in its tiny 8 car parking lot (0.1 acres). Cescaphé was hosting a wedding and probably had to pay a huge chunk of change to park 100 cars in a nearby lot, taking up a full acre of land. It's the economy of bikes that makes them so useful in the city.

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The tree guard just to the left of the North Bowl parking lot is where Cescaphé Ballroom employees came out with bolt cutters to remove a bike.


Anonymous said...

An innocent cyclist/customer to the coffee shop I am employed by recently locked her bicycle to a tree to the left of the shop, in front of a residence.

The owner of the residence came out in a wicked fury, and slashed the tires of the bike. (It was admittedly an inferior parking job, but still.)

A friend of cyclists confronted the enraged home-owner, but it was too late. Would indeed be nice to know the legality of these actions. But either way your conclusion is spot-on: we need more bike parking!

Anonymous said...

Everyone should send an e-mail to the Cecaphe Ballroom at telling them that this is not acceptable. They can't have a car parked in front of the ball room towed, so they shouldn't be cutting locks off bikes

Scott Morgan Lewis said...

Wow. Cescaphe might as well just ask folks to vandalize their property. After living in Philly for 20 years, I've found the best way to deal with situations like this is not to take matters into one's own hands immediately. The city is too slow and doesn't take crimes against cyclists seriously. No sense waiting around for nothing to happen.

Dan said...

@Marc Hummel
If you lock a bike to someone's tree it should not be a surprise that a homeowner is upset. Many people spend hundreds of dollars to buy and plant the tree and water it every week over a period of many years. They have an emotional attachement to the tree and become upset when people treat the tree badly. Locking a bike to a tree can easily cause damage to the tree. The homeowner should not have slashed the tires but the cyclists should have parked the bike somewhere else.

The tree guards at Cescaphe are probably private property since those tree guards don't seem to be anywhere else on 2nd St.

The Bike Coalition should have done a better job of ensuring that there were enough places to park bikes. They should have realized that even with the bike valet parking that there would not be enough places to park the bikes and encouraged people to take public transportation. They should have talked to the local property owners before the event to find out what concerns they would have with the event. The Bike Coalition should have had staff or a volunteer outside to make sure that bikes were not being locked in inappropriate locations.

Anytime you hold an event where the in-place infrastructure is inadequate to meet the anticipated demand, it is your responsibility as the event organizer to make sure that temporary facilities are provided and to minimize the impact of your event. A concert promoter holding an event in a public park doesn't whine about how the city doesn't have a public bathrooms capable of handling thousands of people. Instead they rent portable toilets. Hopefully the Bike Coalition will do a better job of organizing bike parking next year and to reach out to the community to find solutions that prevent conflicts.

While the Cescaphé management should have tried to find the bike owner before cutting the lock, the bike owner should have realized that if s/he wants people to treat their private property with respect they should also treat other's property with respect. I'm disappointed that this post failed to address the Bike Coalition's failures and how they will attempt, during future events, to prevent a reoccurrence.

John Boyle said...

First of all the incident took place after the event was over.

Second of all. Why not just call the Police? Would Cescaphe break into a car parked in front of their building? No.

The point here is that we have a "problem with bicycle parking" not "bicycles are the problem". Better bike parking and procedures codifying the removal of bicycles should be put into place.

Stuart Nottingham said...

I'm curious. What are the laws in Philadelphia regarding the erection of private structures (the tree guards) on public property (the sidewalk)?

Dan said...


I believe that it is perfectly legal to put a tree guard around the perimeter of the planting area. The tree guard is not anymore of an impediment to the public right of way than the planting area. Trees are considered a public good and tree guards help protect the trees from damage. Most young trees are unlikely to survive long without some sort of protection. The trees planted in Kensington and Fishtown have wooden poles placed around the tree to protect them from car doors.


I believe that there is no parking allowed in front of Cescaphe. If you park in their spot which I think is reserved for valet drop off, your car will be towed. If you park on their sidewalk they will tow your car. If you block their driveway they will have your car towed. Would they break into the car? No, but they will remove it.

Anonymous said...

"I believe that it is perfectly legal to put a tree guard around the perimeter of the planting area."

There is a difference between "you believe" and "you know". Come back when you know if its is legal to put up a tree guard on a public sidewalk.

"If you park in their spot which I think is reserved for valet drop off, your car will be towed. If you park on their sidewalk they will tow your car. If you block their driveway they will have your car towed"

The bike was not blocking the driveway or the valet spot. The bike was on a public sidewalk, their property rights stop when you exit the property onto the public sidewalk.

Unknown said...

Don: would the business be subject to liability for any slip-and-fall event on the sidewalk, or would that accrue to the city?

Does the business have a legal responsibility for snow removal on this particular stretch of sidewalk? If they do, how can you assert they have no ownership rights?

If they have a maintenance responsibility, then they should be free to make corrective actions at their initiative.

Unknown said...

Also: is it crystal clear that this sidewalk is public land? I am aware that the property line of a house that my parents used to own in Montgomery county extended to the middle of the street; the street was an easement on their land. If that applies to this parcel, then I suppose the exact language of the easement would come into play.

Stuart Nottingham said...


That was the point of my question: some areas have easement rights, while others retain actual ownership of the roads and sidewalks. In any case, the reaction of Cescaphe was a touch heavy-handed (IMO).

Marilyn B said...

In Philadelphia, sidewalks are public but if a user slips and falls, you sue the home owner, not the city. Home owners are required by law to maintain the sidewalk but they also cannot block access.

Unknown said...

I did a little more googling on the subject, and to my interest and surprise, I found out that the Fairmount Park Commission is responsible for the "custody and control" of street trees, a power granted by the Philadelphia Code, chapter 15-201 and 15-203; and the Fairmount Park Commission has published the following regulation (here:

(f) No person shall fasten or lock a motorcycle, bicycle or any other vehicle or equipment to any Park tree, street tree, tree guard of any Park or street tree, or support thereof, except as expressly permitted by the Commission.

My neighbor recently applied for a tree (to deter illegal sidewalk parkers on the back of her house blocking the fire escape) and while I am not certain what total set of rights the Fairmount Park Commission delegated to her, she does have the right to water it. The Philadelphia Code (in 15-203: does say the commission has the power to designate contractors and individuals with the power to provide "maintenance, protection and care" of street trees at their expense.

So, if the business has a fully permitted tree, then they very well might have the powers to maintain and care for the tree, which in my layman's understanding would entail the power to remove bicycles.

Huh, I had no idea yesterday, but if the paperwork is done (and given my neighbor's experience, not an impossibility), then the business is on even firmer legal ground than cyclists would have liked.

Unknown said...

In sum, cyclists locking bikes to street trees and tree guards are clearly in the legal wrong vs. the Fairmount Park Commission.

It's not outside the realm of possibility for the commission to delegate maintenance and care responsibilities for trees to nearby property owners, especially if the owner originally requested the tree from the commission. If this happened to occur, the removal of bicycles is solidly within the legal, and I would even go as far as say moral, rights of that entity.

On the one hand, it's a rule I know I've broken in the past, though through ignorance - I won't lock to trees anymore!! - and it's too bad for cyclists, really. On the other hand, I find this limited equitable interest in nearby public property to frankly be an enlightened piece of policy. "Defensible space", in the term of art of New Urbanism, is an important part of a well functioning dense urban area, and this is a solid defensible space policy - and I would not want to see the Bicycle Coalition on the wrong side of this policy.

Dan said...


Their property right may well extend if you attach your bike to their private property. What would you do if someone, who couldn't find anywhere to lock their bike, decided to lock their bike to your bike and by doing so prevent you from being able to ride your bike home. By your logic, you have no remedy other than calling the police (good luck with that) or waiting for the person to return. What if the person doesn't return for 2 days? Are you still standing there waiting for them?

There are clearly cases where a property owner is entitled to remove a bike when the bike is locked to the property owner's private property. Here are some situations where I think it is appropriate to remove a bike.

The locked bike is blocking a handicap access ramp while locked to a railing.

The bike is locked to a gated driveway or breezeway preventing homeowner access.

The bike has been locked to a tree, tree guard, railing, gate, fence, etc for an extended period of time.

Locking a bike to a tree guard for a couple of hours may fall into this category if the bike is blocking the right of way, a sign clearly indicates that bikes locked to the guard will be removed, or when the cyclists has been asked not to lock the bike to the guard and has done so anyway. The sidewalk is fairly narrow there and the bike could have been impeding the pedestrian right of way. John did not describe what side of the tree guard the bike was locked to so we can only speculate.

As I said before, the Cescaphé should have tried to find the cyclist before cutting the lock but it should not be surprising that a property owner is going to be protective of their property. Those tree guards are quite attractive and I suspect that they spent at least a couple hundred dollars per tree.