The trio of master’s program alums topped the ‘Rack ’Em Up’ design contest to create fire hydrant-accessible bike corrals.
They knew one another during their time in the University’s M.S. in industrial design program, so it was only natural that—after graduation—Grace Choi, Corey Jameson and Colin Lew would find a way to team up on a project that captured their collective imaginations.
That opportunity presented itself last summer when Choi learned of a Philadelphia Parking Authority-led contest which aimed to “design and install prototype fire hydrant-accessible bike corrals—to be known affectionately as ‘Philly Racks’—with the goal of preventing illegal car parking, maintaining fire hydrant access, and increasing the supply of bike parking on Philadelphia streets.”
Team Sophon, as they branded themselves, set out on a months-long effort to interview bicyclists to gauge what they need from public bike racks, research existing products, and brainstorm concepts that would align with the contest’s guidelines.
The contest’s inspiration went beyond expanded access to safe places for bicycles to be locked up. The bike racks will be strategically placed in locations that prevent drivers from parking in front of fire hydrants.
Seventeen teams submitted concepts, including Team Sophon’s which incorporates steel tubing and an overhead canopy with solar-powered lights that illuminate when a rider pulls into the location. The bike racks are in the street along the curb-line on either side of an existing fire hydrant.
In October, Team Sophon learned the “Harbor” concept they built made the short-list of five finalists. In December, they were among three teams of engineers and designers selected to install prototypes near Second and Walnut streets in Old City. Finally, in early January, the urban-design team received an email notifying them of the results.
The trio had won the competition, which meant a $3,500 prize and the promise that at least two of their bike racks will be built and installed—one at the Old City site and another in West Philadelphia, and both near PPA-owned garages.
Suffice it to say, Team Sophon is ecstatic over the results of a contest that saw them competing with long-established urban designers, a victory that left them quite surprised.
“We always wanted to do something together, and when I heard about the competition, I thought this would be fun, so I called Colin and Corey,” Choi says. “It was more like a project in service of our team than our team in service of a project. It’s funny, because at the start, we never thought we would get this far.”
The trio had worked “on projects adjacent to one another” while in the master’s program, says Lew, who along with Jameson graduated in 2020, while Choi did so in the fall of 2021. The “Rack ’Em Up” competition afforded them the opportunity to team up more closely than the sprints and design projects at Jefferson.
What set their approach apart from others was primarily focusing on getting insights about the user experience through interviews and observations that led the design process rather than focusing on engineering and manufacturing from the outset.
Choi recalls with a laugh the times she lingered around bike racks hoping to talk with bicyclists about what they wanted most from that experience.
“We also had a lot of video and brainstorming sessions to determine what our direction would be. We played around with a lot of ideas, but the interviews honed us in on the direction we went,” Choi says.
The team utilized a Miro online whiteboard to track their progress throughout. It covers everything from the design criteria, research, strategy, site visits and existing bike racks to concepts they presented to cyclists, name ideas and potential materials.
Their “Bicycle Harbor” proposal states an objective of intending to “alleviate Philadelphia’s growing need for bicycle parking while simultaneously reducing the occurrence of cars parking illegally in front of fire hydrants.”
In the MS in industrial design program, we’re always focusing on collaboration, seeking new opportunities and designing for everyday impact, so it’s great to see alumni setting an example of how this can work in the real world. –Tod Corlett, director of industrial design programs
The PPA noted that it issued more than 30,000 tickets to individuals illegally parked in front of a fire hydrant in fiscal year 2021. (“This is a great chance to reclaim some underutilized space and alleviate the issues of blocked hydrants!” reads the contest’s website.)
The design also incorporates heavy duty steel tubing and sturdy bollards with reflective markings to protect from passing cars.
“Harbor is designed to be visible, illuminating both the user and the surrounding area at night using motion sensing technology and LED lighting,” the group’s proposal explains. “One unit houses up to four bicycles on either side of a fire hydrant, for a maximum of eight. However, it is designed to be modular and expandable, with the ability to adapt to the size of any given space.”
Much of the hands-on work for a project which had a $2,000 prototyping budget would be done at Jameson’s home (and backyard) in Mt. Airy, moving to NextFab when they realized they needed more space.
“Much to the chagrin of my neighbors,” jokes Jameson about, among other noisy things, the use of an angle grinder atop a rotten log out back after work hours in an effort that included welding help from 2019 alum Katie McCormick. “The process was fun, until we had to physically make it. NextFab was wonderful to let us move over there later in the process.”
She also has good memories of the “build day” in Old City, when they had already gotten through all “the questions, what ifs, hurdles and hoops and knew what we were putting together.” There, they hopped out of a van, pulled all the pieces out, and worked alongside two other teams.
“Now, we just have to figure out how to get it engineered,” says Jameson, as the team awaits word back from vendors and whether the powers-that-be have any refined revisions before their concept becomes tangible reality.
Conceptually, Lew notes that the team went the uncomplicated route: creating a rack that was sturdy enough to protect against bike thieves while ensuring that the structure was safe for riders to enter and exit.
“We were totally blind about who else was competing in this until the very end. We were under the impression that it would be ‘student’ teams like us, but then we found out that some of the largest firms in the world were involved,” Lew says of teams from Kimley-Horn and AECOM. “It really feels great to have won.”
Also proud of Team Sophon’s victory was Tod Corlett, director of the industrial-design programs within the Kanbar College of Design, Engineering and Commerce.
Corlett spoke of how the team made the most of the program’s philosophy as they moved into the professional world. Choi now works for BRDG Studios, Jameson at Design Science and Lew at Design Prosody.
“In the MS in industrial design program, we’re always focusing on collaboration, seeking new opportunities and designing for everyday impact, so it’s great to see alumni setting an example of how this can work in the real world,” he says.
Along with the PPA and several sponsors, the Philadelphia chapter of WTS—an organization that works to advance women in professional roles in transportation—teamed up to launch the contest and will host a yet-scheduled awards gala.