Sunday, July 3, 2011

Bicycle Security: how to protect your green commuting investment

A common instance of theft: the bicycle frame ...Image via Wikipedia
Commuting by bicycle is one fun way to reduce your transit related carbon footprint, but theft is a huge problem in any metropolitan area.  Proper bike security is a must for the urban cyclist, and there are a few simple best practices that everyone should know.

Last month, I got an email from the U of O Transit Group about precisely this issue, in which a former peace officer and current Bicycle Coordinator at the University of Maryland Transportation Services expressed very clearly everything I had ever heard about good bike security.  After asking his permission, I have decided to post what he wrote almost exactly (with some omissions, he describes in detail why certain lock types are not very effective, and that is information that we don't need to be spreading through the inter-tubes).  This info will be particularly useful for anyone who has just switched, or is considering switching to commuting by bike.

So here is what John Brandt has to say about bike security [stuff in square brackets = my commentary]:

I thought I'd weigh in on the conversation about locking bicycles because I may have some experience and/or information that some of you might not.  I was a cop from 1980-2010 and ran a police bicycle unit and a crime prevention unit for a lot of those years.  I was also on a cut-team that was responsible for removing demonstrators that locked themselves to things.  Lastly, my college is inside the Washington D.C. “beltway” and we’re not too far from Baltimore, either.  As a result, our bike theft problem may be more severe than for many of you.  Regardless, I believe that as gas prices rise and biking becomes more prevalent, the problem will become greater for all of us.  I apologize for the length of my comments, but I hope I can help some of you.

Here’s what we’ve found about cable locks:
·         3/8” to 5/8” cable locks (coated or uncoated) just plain don’t work as a primary locking device.  Thinner cables are even more worthless.  Cables can be a good device for preventing opportunistic, walk-off thefts, but if your bike is out of your sight, they’re practically worthless.  Don’t believe any hype from manufacturers or dealers about how “their” cable is stronger or better than all the “others.”  They can all be easily beaten in four ways (two by easily concealable tools):

  [Specific methods omitted at John's suggestion]

Cable locks are a nice secondary lock, when used with a u-lock.  Most thieves won’t bother defeating them just to steal your front wheel (unless it’s REALLY pricey).  There are just too many unsecured front wheels lying around on bike racks.

Here are the key facts we’ve found about u-locks:
·         You generally need power tools to defeat a u-lock and that makes them less likely to be attacked, but they’re not a perfect solution to bike theft and the bike owner is still their own worst enemy when they don’t use the lock properly.
[Specific methods omitted]

·         U-locks are only as good as what you attach them to and how you attach them.

o   The best you can do is to lock your u-lock through both wheels, your frame, and a substantial bike rack.

§  Almost no one does this because they don’t want to take the time to remove and replace their front wheel.

§  When you do this, all this stuff in the u-lock makes it very difficult, even for bike thieves who use ‘spreader-tools’ to defeat the u-lock.  There’s no room to get any tool in the right place without damaging what you’re trying to steal.

§  In 30 years of police work, I’m unaware of ANY bike ever stolen on my campus if it was locked with a u-lock, through both wheels and the frame, to a real bike rack.

o   If you attach your u-lock through your frame, but not any wheel, your bike can still be ridden off if what you’re secured to can be defeated.

§  People ride around with u-locks hanging from their frames and handlebars all the time.  Cops don’t pay any attention to this.

o   If your u-lock is through your bike frame and at least one wheel, your bike is less likely to be stolen than almost any other bike around.  Every other bike is easier to steal and get away with so that’s where the thieves go. 

§  To be honest, I accept this as my best compromise on my campus.

o   If you choose to include only one wheel in the u-lock, putting a cable through the other wheel also makes your bike more trouble to steal. 

·         Yes, an old model of Kryptonite u-lock could be defeated with a Bic pen, but I’m unaware of any new u-lock model that has this particular flaw.  Yes, I’ve seen the video on the web. [link here, it's pretty nifty!]

·         Yes, you probably can freeze them in liquid nitrogen and then shatter them with a hammer, but I’ve never heard of it actually being done and the ability to transport and use liquid nitrogen is WAY beyond our bike thieves.  If yours are this sophisticated, I think you’re better off banning bicycles on your campus except inside secured and monitored facilities.  If you have a video-link of this lock-defeating method, I’d love to see it.

Front wheel is locked with U-lock but the rest...Image via Wikipedia
Here are the most common locking mistakes we see:
·         Locking only the front wheel allows the thief to steal an unsecure front wheel from a similar, nearby bike and attach it to your bike.  You’re left with your front wheel and your lock.  Someone else, nearby, has a bike, but no front wheel. [!]

·         The front fork is not a frame element.  If you lock your bike through the front fork, the thief will remove the bike from the front wheel and pull the fork up and out of the lock.  The bike and wheel are then re-connected and they ride away, leaving your lock, alone and empty, on the rack.

·         If you lock your bike at an inverted-u rack, but the rack has become loose in the ground, the thief will just pull the rack out of the ground to free your bike to steal.  Trust me, they’ll put the rack back in the ground and hope to get more bikes off it in the future.  If you have this style of rack, please check them occasionally.  If you see someone shaking one of these racks, they’re probably a thief, trying to break a new rack loose for future use. [!!]

·         If you lock your bike to something other than a bike rack and whatever you’re locked to can be defeated easily, don’t expect your bike to be there when you return, unless you’ve run your lock through at least one wheel.

o   Thieves just rip bicycles up and off of most landscape items. 

o   If your lock fits over the parking meter head, they can just lift your bike off the meter (or sign post).

o   Wrought iron is actually quite weak at each weld-point; you may not even notice that it’s already broken and bends easily.

o   Chains that stretch between bollards are horrible.  The chain can usually be cut or just pulled out from one end and every bike along that chain is now loose.

o   Arms and legs of decorative lawn or patio furniture are easy to separate.  Our thieves then push them back together so they look secure for the next bicyclist.

Antivolvélo7Image via Wikipedia
 Of course, most bike thefts could have been avoided if the owner had just run their u-lock through at least one wheel.  Thieves don’t want to CARRY a bike away, this attracts unwanted attention, they want to RIDE it away and blend in with every other nearby cyclist.  This is why I say that encouraging bicyclists to use a u-lock through their frame and at least one wheel is a compromise that I’ve decided I’m willing to accept.  They may not be willing to take off their other wheel each time they lock their bike, but it only takes a moment more to make sure you include one wheel with the frame as you lock up. 

In the past few years we’ve given away hundreds of u-locks and sold hundreds more at wholesale cost.  The theft rate for bicycles on my campus has dropped dramatically, but the remaining thefts still have one thing in common, around 93% (it varies) of them were only using cable locks.  Many of the remaining thefts were unsecured bikes taken from inside buildings, cars, etc.  I’m aware that there are probably other factors that reduced the theft-rate, like CCTV cameras, the economy, etc.  I can’t factor those into the equation, but it seems obvious to me……lots of good racks and lots of u-locks =  less theft of bikes.

I know, I didn’t address component or parts-theft, so here are a few thoughts to ‘minimize’ that problem:

o   If it can be removed without tools, it can be easily stolen; fix that:

o   Change your seat post quick release to a bolt; how often to you really adjust your seat height.

o   You can replace wheel quick releases with bolted axles (yuck) or with locking mechanisms ($$), or you can put a fat zip-tie on the spoon to hold it tight against the frame or fork.  It’s not perfect, but it makes it harder to open the spoon.  If you carry tools to do road-repairs on your bike, you should have something that can pop the zip-tie if you get a flat.  If not, you can still fix the flat with the wheel still on.

o   Lights?  Buy lights that bolt or screw on, take them with you, or buy cheap enough to not worry about the loss.

o   Computer?  Pop it off and take it with you.  It’s unlikely that a thief wants your old model, but why tease them or provide a target for a vandal?

o   Panniers or other bags?  Take them with you or switch to a courier bag.

Lastly…….here’s the additional advice we should give to everyone………..please, please, please…….register your bike with somebody, record your serial number somewhere, be able to give a detailed description of your bike, and always report it if it’s stolen.

P.S. If you’re a bike thief, please forget everything you just read; there’s just no way to beat any bike lock.  Find another profession.  There’s no profit in stealing bikes because the cops recover EVERY bike and arrest EVERY thief; EVERY time.

So there you have it folks, the definitive guide to bike security.  Or at least a good gloss.  One last note, John also told me via email that in any good talk about security, one should mention environmental security.  In other words, lock your bike in a place that is well lit and frequented by pedestrians.  Even a fast bike thief will be a little wary of working on a lock in broad daylight, with lots of bystanders.  Also good is any area patrolled by bike cops, they tend to be more savvy about bike security and suspicious bike behavior, and their presence can deter theft.

Recap: U-locks are good, cable locks only good as backup/ component protection, and any lock only as good as the rack you are locking to.  Don't let thieves make saving the planet harder, secure your bike, and Ride On!
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  1. Fantastic advice. I never thought about taking the front tire off and locking it with the back tire.

  2. Hello. Good advices you gave there, undoubtedly. But, one of the most important ones IMO is the way the bike actually looks. The dirtier it is, the cheapest it seams, thus attracting less attention.
    And about letting your bike where lots of pedestrians are passing by, I want to show you a little movie made in Romania. Enjoy! (press CC for subtitles)

  3. That video really proves the point about U-locks, I think. You can't break a properly locked U-lock (with new key type) without damaging the bike pretty bad. Also, I still think that a public area is safer than a rarely used alley. It does depend somewhat on the city, the people, and the police presence. In the end, no security is unbreakable, it is instead about heaping deterrent upon deterrent. And hiding how nice your bike actually is could be useful in that, but some people take a lot of pride in their bike.

    Thanks for the link!

  4. Thanks very much. I'm glad I could read an article from someone who dealt with lots of real bike thefts. And it's so reassuring to know that if I properly lock my bike with my U-Lock, it is very unlikely to be stolen :-) Thanks!

  5. Freezing a cable lock

  6. The best theft protection used to be established in islamic countries. Cutting right hand up to certain measurement is definitive stop. Criminals thrive on public tolerance. Pure and simple - shortening someones tail up to their neck is the most definitive and radical loss prevention. Especially publicly. Everything else is just "democrapic" BS. U people to quickly and conveniently forgot about "quick fixing ideas", used to be in our daily lives. Last century a horse thief shall be hanged without a trial if being caught in many civilized countries.