Dear Portland, Please Stop Making Things So Easy for Bike Thieves.


Over the last two months, a small team surveyed 2,500 bikes in the bike-friendly city of Portland, Oregon through the eyes of a bike thief. The conclusion? Many cyclists through poor locking hygiene, are practically inviting their bikes to disappear.

While the numbers will vary from city-to-city, many of the patterns and poor techniques we encountered are common in all communities and can serve to help educate cyclists. With a small amount of education and some added effort at the rack, cyclists can make life tougher and help slow this growing epidemic impacting about 2 million cyclists annually in North America.

We’ve all seen variations of this image. With the right lock, some knowledge and a little effort, you can protect your bike from this outcome.

Origin

It started when I became a victim of bike theft.

My prized mountain bike was stolen off the back of my truck and the contents of the truck pilfered. It was parked for 6 hours, in a secure parking garage with security cameras. The bike was secured with multiple high-end locks and surrounded by over a hundred bikes with weaker locks. The thief clearly understood the value of my bike and made an incredible effort to liberate it without detection. I was shocked — my bike vacation disrupted, over $10,000 of personal expense and months later, my identity compromised. Those six brief hours that I parked my bike outdoors turned into hundreds hours of headache and outrage.

U-locks are terrific theft deterrents when used correctly. This owner has unfortunately only secured their front wheel with it by looping the fork instead of the frame.

We’ll save the rich details of that story for another time, but after the theft, I spent months tracking down the thief and countless hours assisting law enforcement. Today, the fence who listed my bike on eBay is a convicted felon, and I’m a convicted victim.

The experience was incredibly illuminating and revealed a number of weaknesses in the system. Realizing that the bad guys were better organized and using technology more effectively than the good guys led to the creation of the 529 Garage to help communities protect themselves against bike theft.

How big is this problem? A bicycle is stolen every 30 seconds in the North America — making this nearly a half-billion dollar epidemic.


Is the Problem the Locks or the Owners?

Routinely in discussions with different people about the problem of bike theft, it is suggested that “eliminating cable locks will eliminate the problem.”

$20 bolt cutters can get through 90% of the cable locks out there in seconds with modest risk of detection.

Putting aside the impracticality of the suggestion — and trying to “enforce” this with the 4,000 independent bike shops and 15,000+ big box retailers that sell bike locks — it didn’t foot with the reports we’ve gotten from the 529 Garage network.

Certainly, we have received a number of reports on the 529 network of defeated cable locks, but it wasn’t the runaway cause of thefts reported to us. And, given that the 529 Garage community is a self-selected, early adopter community, it’s too early to trust our user data. So, we hit the streets in search for the answer to the question “how well do Portland cyclists secure their bikes?”

We put together a simple “529 Bike Census” application using Fulcrum from a company called Spatial Networks. It’s a geo-spatial data gathering platform that makes it simple to generate forms and activate a team in the field to collect data. The team at Spatial Networks are cyclists and were super-supportive of our efforts and gave great input and assist on wiring things up for our application.

Using the 529 Bike Census in the field to capture bike locking data. Fulcrum allowed us to streamline data capture to less than a minute/bike and enlist multiple volunteers on both iPhone and Android.

With help from Jonathan of Bike Portland, we gathered up some volunteers and hit the streets. Across 2 months, we collected 2,500 samples of bikes parked in the Portland metro area to see how effectively Portlander’s are securing their bikes. The results surprised even the most alarmist in the bike theft circles.

About the Bikes

A rare hero lock job spotted during the survey. This rider has secured both wheels and his helmet effectively with a single, standard U-lock to a rack that is well secured in a high-traffic area. Eliminate temptation and maximize your chances that the bike will be there when you return.

About 78% of the bikes parked in the city were categorized as “commuter” bikes. Not a perfect classification, but we considered bikes that had multiple gears and flat pedals as a commuter. As “hipster” as Portland is viewed by the outside world, less than 10% of the bikes were “fixies”. About 7% were “road” bikes, generally carbon fiber bikes with clipless pedals. Only about 5% of the bikes in the sample would be considered felony-class if prosecuted (over $1,000).

An interesting trend we picked up on was that about 17% of the bikes were unidentifiable by the volunteer by brand because the owner had overpainted, removed headbadges and/or stickered the bike extensively. Part fashion, part protection — an unbranded and highly identifiable bike is trickier and riskier to sell on Craigslist, eBay or OfferUp. Unsurprisingly, fixies were the most likely type of bike to have no manufacturer identifications. Of the 250 or so fixies from the sample, just over half of them were unidentifiable.

A typical bike that has been made difficult to identify by the owner. Unfortunately, this owner spent more time using stickers than learning to use a U-lock effectively. A thief removing the front wheel (using the quick release) can easily take the rest of this bike in seconds.

We also observed that about 20% of the bikes had helmets left with the bike and about 14% had removable accessories left on the bike. While there’s no meaningful police data on stolen accessories, anecdotally, we hear lots of stories of lights (in particular) disappearing from bikes, likely to be attached to stolen bikes to help increase the resale value.

Locking Technique

The good news was that 84% of bikes in Portland were secured with U-locks. About 10% were “secured” with cable locks and if you can believe it — 36 bikes had no lock whatsoever! The majority of the chain and car rack locks (an additional 4%) were low-to-no security on, typically more expensive bikes.

This beautiful $800 Linus commuter was left unlocked less than 20 feet away from a proper rack for 45 minutes. When locked, the owner relies on the low-end cable lock wrapped around the top-tube. (The second bike in the photo was also left unlocked.)

Adding up the worst offenders — over 15% of bikes parked in Portland are very easy targets, requiring no more than a $15 set of bolt cutters to ride away with.

The thief probably approached this bike with a front wheel in hand. Presto! A fully-ridable (and sellable) bike. Note that this isn’t a quick-release front wheel. Never assume a thief packs only a single tool.

While the U-lock usage is promising, less promising is the effectiveness of the U-lock technique. 60% of bikes secured only the frame or a wheel, but not both. Thieves routinely will grab an unsecured front wheel from one bike and seek out a second bike securing only the front wheel and assemble a fully ridable and sellable bike in minutes in dense parking areas with little suspicion from passerby.

Both wheels and saddle will be bolted onto another bike either to complete a bike, or to mask its appearance to the victim. Eliminating quick release skewers and seat clamp might have saved this rider the hassle and expense of getting this new Trek back to working order.

“Bike prowls” are a highly unreported crime, but just walking the streets in any major city will quickly reinforce that thieves are eager to pick up unsecured wheels and saddles to add to their collection. These parts can be used to build complete bikes out of parts, or to make a bike less identifiable to victims when sold online. Quick release skewers and seatposts aren’t just convenient for the riders, but incredibly tempting for thieves. If you park your bike publicly with any frequency, replace all of the quick releases on your bike with security skewers or at least bolt-throughs such as these.

A failed attempt at using the top tube as a lever to defeat a U-lock. That didn’t prevent the thief from snagging both wheels and the seatpost+saddle and leaving the victim with a ruined frame. If they had locked the frame and a wheel to the rack, this probably wouldn’t have happened.

Another finding was that most of the U-locked, frame-only lock jobs simply locked the top-tube of the bike to the rack. Apart from leaving both wheels easy to pick off, the top tube gives a thief an effective lever arm to twist the bike which can defeat many low-to-average quality U-locks.

If confronted with a high-end U-lock that will take a few minutes to cut through with a portable 18v grinder, the thief may simply cut the rack, or unbolt it, riding away with the U-lock hanging across the top-tube. The few seconds you saved in parking your bike using only the top-tube is an invitation for theft or damage to your bike.

We don’t want to leave you with the impression that Portland is somehow outside of the norm. In fact, we believe that Portland probably rates higher than most major urban centers out there in terms of the use of high-quality locks and good technique by owners. About 90% of the bikes were locked to secure, legal fixtures and about 40% of the bikes did secure both wheel and frame.

No, we didn’t stage this shot. Note that the $50 U-lock is not attached to any part of the bike, it’s essentially serving as a padlock for the $5 cable running through the front wheel and frame.

Potentially the best news of the survey was the trend towards multiple locking devices. Nearly 10% of all of the bikes surveyed used multiple devices, the most common being a U-lock plus an accessory cable. When used properly, demanding that a thief uses multiple tools, and additional time to defeat different locks will often send them to the next bike. The flip side here is that about 50% of the users of the U-lock + accessory cable used the product incorrectly — in some cases using the lock essentially as a padlock and only using the cable to secure part of the bike!

Samples from the “Unbelievable” Category

Along the way, we found dozens of examples noted by volunteers explicitly to serve as examples of what not to do when locking a bike.

This is not a 529-approved bicycle security device. (this bike was parked for over 2 hours like this)

Volunteers witnessed over a dozen bikes with U-locks securing their quick release seat tubes. While the U-lock might not slip over the saddle easily, removing the seatpost, losing the lock and reattaching the seatpost makes for an immediate getaway.

Believe it or not, more than a dozen of the bikes in our survey were “secured” via a quick-release seat post like this. 10 seconds and a thief can snap up the whole bike and even adjust the saddle to a comfortable height.

Finally, there were dozens of bikes not locked at all! In fact, over half of the unlocked bikes had U-locks stored on the bike in some fashion. Did they forget the key? Had alcohol been a contributor? Incredibly, as we have toured multiple law enforcement and college property rooms, you’d be amazed how many bikes are stolen with locks still holstered to their frames.

This bike was “locked” with the straps of the owner’s helmet and nothing else in the evening in one of the most noted areas for bike theft in Portland. A quick stop-over? Nope. Three hours later the bike was (incredibly) still there.
An assortment of just a few of many poorly / incorrectly secured bikes around Portland.

5 Simple Steps to Bum Out Bike Thieves

1. Always Use a U-lock

Never rely on any cable lock, or anything but the highest end chain locks. A $20 pair of bolt cutters will make short work of the majority of these. If you require a chain-style lock, research your purchase carefully. Spend $40+ on a U-lock as a good starting point.

2. Lock it Properly

We’ll be posting a thorough article on proper locking techniques and variations for different situations, but most simply, always lock your frame and a wheel to a secure structure. By locking both the frame and the wheel, you disable the bike, minimize risk of prowls and add time and headache for the thief.

3. Lose the Quick Releases, Take Accessories with You

Lose the QR’s and the odds of losing an unlocked wheel or saddle are minimized. Consider an accessory cable to loop through the second wheel and saddle rails. Take your lights and panniers with you, always.

4. Spread Your Knowledge

Awareness and education are probably the most valuable tools to thwart the bike theft issues in most urban and campus areas. Most cyclists learn to lock by copying their neighbor’s bike. Spread the word to cyclists you meet at the racks and encourage your local shop to educate folks on new bike and lock sales. A two minute demonstration and discussion goes a long way.

5. Register Your Bike

A topic for another post, but after locking your bike properly, registering your bike is the next best thing you can do to protect yourself. True, police don’t have the bandwidth to go chase after a single bike, but a huge percentage (sometimes north of 50%) of reported bikes do get recovered by police, often as part of another investigation. Registering your bike is the single best way to make sure that you have the data you need for a proper police report/insurance claim and for the police to be able to locate you if they recover your bike. It only takes five minutes, do it now.

The least successful “bike shop” in Portland. The biggest inventory, the fewest “sales”. It’s name? The Portland Police Property Room. Hundreds of bikes that cannot be tracked to the owner sit here waiting to go to auction or charities. And yes, after the thief tried to twist the U-lock into submission and failed, they removed the rack. After they removed the rack, they found the shackle too small to slip over the base. Result? They took the rack and the bike! Never underestimate how brazen thieves are.

The Future of the 529 Bike Census

This is the beginning of learning more about how bikes are secured by owners. We plan to continue to build on this baseline of data to learn more to help improve the security of bikes. Here are a few of our planned next steps:

  • Take another sample in 6 months in Portland to test the efficacy of education efforts
  • Cross-reference this data with theft and recovery data to investigate patterns
  • Empower other cities to survey their regions and grow the collective knowledge base. Drop us an e-mail if you’re interested in getting your city/community/campus involved in the project.
  • Working with lock manufacturers and bike shops to improve the education at point of sale — clearly owners are willing to invest their money to protect their bikes, but they need help to learn how to do it effectively.

Remember, when you’re buying a lock, you’re buying time. Any lock can be defeated. When applying a lock, you can either add or subtract to the average time required to defeat it. “Think like a thief” when locking up and make it as hard as possible for the thief to defeat your lock job.

Remember, only you can take a bike out of crime.