A Brief Public Service Announcement on Locking Your Bike

27 05 2011

Sometimes I’ll see a poorly locked bike, and I’ll want to leave a note for its rider about how to properly secure it, but I never do because I worry that said note will attract the attention of opportunistic thieves.

Today was a little different though, because the bike in question was an ECOS bike, one of the fleet of bikes I maintain for the the University’s bike library, and guess who recently organized all the spare keys? The bike was locked over the handlebars, with a brake cable being the only thing actually securing the lock to the bike. (I forgot to take a before picture. Sorry.)

So, thanks to a spare key, let me demonstrate how to properly lock your bike:

The U-lock goes through the frame, wheel and bike rack. If this bike had a quick release back wheel, it would also need to be secured with a cable or additional lock.

Locking your wheels as well as your frame may seem like overkill, but this is campus, next to an LRT station, and the entire area is littered with bike carcasses from riders who didn’t bother to lock the wheels they wanted to keep.

In retrospect, I should've included some introductory niceties.

So I wrote the cheeky note. It turns out it wasn’t necessary because the lady who rented the bike came for it as I was leaving. I introduced myself to her and explained what I had done and why. She seemed quite surprised by the whole encounter, and I’m worried I might have scared her, even though we were both smiling by the end. Hopefully I’ll see her again when she returns the bike and we can have a laugh about the whole episode.

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Bikes Lost, Bikes Found, Bicycles on the Edge of Abscontion

9 09 2010

Did you know that around 1500 bicycles are reported stolen in Edmonton every year? And that only a minority of bike thefts are reported?  I’ve been thinking a lot about stolen bikes lately, since finding a very nice bike crudely stashed, unlocked, and missing its front wheel, while walking around my neighborhood.

The scenario likely played out something like this: cyclist locks bicycle to something by its front wheel, which had a quick release axle, and goes about their business. Then, opportunistic bike thief removes aptly named quick release skewer and carries off the rest of the bike, leaving the front wheel, still securely locked for its owner, before stashing bike to pick up later. You don’t have to look far to find evidence of stories like this.

If the U-lock had been on the frame and the cable through the wheel, we never would've had this sad vignette. This is one of the better locks on the market, but no matter how much you spend, it's pointless if you don't use it properly. No lock's foolproof, but cables are easier to cut than U-locks.

The more I looked at the fleets of bikes parked around my high-bike-theft neighborhood, the sadder I became for all the cyclists’ potential sorrows, because only a tiny minority had secured their bicycles well enough to thwart a bike thief.

Even though this is one of the nicer bikes at this rack, this bike will be here when its owner returns. The U-lock securing the front wheel and frame to the rack plus the cable through the rear wheel will send potential thieves looking for an easier target.

So, if you have to leave your bike locked anywhere out of your sight, here’s how to make sure it’s still there when you come back for it:

  • Use a U-lock to lock the frame AND wheel to a fixed object.
  • Always lock through the inside triangles of the frame, not the fork or handlebars.
  • Use a cable lock only as a secondary lock to the U-lock, to secure the other wheel, or seat, or any other easily removable parts.
  • If your bike is so valuable that it would still be a profitable venture for a thief even if they had to go to a hardware store to buy a tool to cut your lock(s), you probably shouldn’t let it out of your sight.
  • Record your bike’s serial number. If it is ever stolen, you will need this to recover it.
  • If you keep your bike in a garage or on a porch, lock it down to something.

And now, here’s how not to lock a bicycle:

Scrawny cable lock over the handlebars, how could one steal thee, let me count the ways...

This bike's frame is locked but not its quick release wheels. Had this bike been here when the bike frame belonging to the wheel beside it was stolen, an observant thief could've taken the unsecured wheel off this bike and rode into the sunset.

A double sheet bend knot would work better. But seriously, do you know how easy it is to cut this cable (even the snipped cable in the top picture is, like, 10 times stronger), or how easy it is to take the handlebars & stem off? And I used to have one of those combination locks when I was in elementary school, until a bully picked the lock then rode my bike around me, mockingly, in circles. That's a pretty nice bike to be trusting to a lock that can be picked by a not-so-bright 10 year old.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve helped someone fix their bike and seen a crappy cable lock. I’d ask them if that was their only lock, and if it was, advise them to purchase a U-lock post haste. They’d usually assure me that their lock was adequate, even though they were regularly parking on campus or Whyte Ave, and that they couldn’t afford a more expensive lock, and that no one would want to steal their bike anyway. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen the same person a month or two later, with a different bike and a brand new U-lock. Every time it happens, it makes me sad and angry, but it no longer surprises me. And after seeing so many badly locked bikes on such a short exploratory journey, I’m actually surprised that more bikes aren’t going missing.

With all this focus on locks, it should be noted that bikes are most commonly stolen when they are left unlocked in public and semi public places, yards, sheds, porches and garages. It should also be noted that no lock is unbreakable, and with the right tools even the most expensive locks can be defeated in minutes or even just seconds.

As for the nice bike, a friend and I went back for it, left a note where we found it, and brought it home. I ran the serial number through CPIC (any bike reported stolen to police Canada-wide will be in this database, provided the serial number is known), replied to a missing similar bike ad on kijiji, have checked out the online stolen bicycle registry and contacted a local bicycle registry. If the owner of this bike reports it stolen through any of these channels, I’ll so happily return it (with bonus cleaning and tune-up). Even without the serial number, a specific description of its unique characteristics will suffice for the latter two registries. In the meantime, is it wrong for me to build a front wheel for it and (ahem) ride it like it’s stolen?