The “bike locking science” is a combination of psychology, statistics, physics, engineering, and a lot of common sense. Yet, common sense in bike locking isn’t always as self-evident, and why not increase your chances of keeping your bike by locking it properly? Here’s a bit scientific approach to avoiding having your bike stolen.
There are two sides to safe bike locking:
– Choosing the right spot to park your bike,
– Locking the bike properly (i.e., right locking technique).
Let’s analyze them one by one, and see how science can help us out.
1) Parking positioning
Aside from the “notorious” areas, the riskiest places for bike parking are city centres and student areas.
Leaving your €1000 hyper beast in the middle of the neighbourhood with worst theft rate in the city might not be a smart move. Better park it further and take the walk (if you really need to leave such bike outside). Note that the statistically worst neighbourhoods for bike theft are not (only) the “worst looking”, it’s often city centres or student areas.
Avoid unmonitored “periodical traffic” places.
In general, the worst places to park your bike according to statistics are big unguarded/unmonitored lots with periodical traffic, such as those at train stations, university campuses (!) or in office areas. Thieves have a solid combination of time and certainty when stealing bikes there, which are the key success factors for their work.
Use thieve’s fear factors: crowd and light.
Thieves are of course aware stealing is illegal, and try to avoid getting caught – and even seen – at all costs. That means you can use the crowd as a protection. The tempted thief will never know when you – or some other good soul from the crowd – step in. On the other hand, avoid empty side alleys, which give criminals enough time and peace of mind to do their job.
Closely related, park where the light is. If you’re a criminal trying to avoid getting caught, bikes right below the lamp where everyone can see you won’t be your top choice.
Hack thieves’ greed: be the “worse choice”
On more “ingenious” psychological trick: Park next to an obviously better (more expensive, better looking) bike. Ideally, if it is even worse protected than yours, than you basically have a security guarantee. And this completely seriously works. Ask any police officer you meet. Many people even deliberately make their bike uglier, e.g. by taping the saddle, scratching/spraying the frame etc. Bit extreme measure, but an efficient one as well.
Avoid tempting the thieves by hiding your bike. Each lock in a way is obstacle worth building.
With the laws of physics governing our world, seeing a bike through wall or door is relatively hard, and stealing it through a keyhole is practically impossible. In other words, if you have the chance, always prefer locking your bike somewhere hidden. Have a cellar? Awesome, use it. Communal space or even average shelter are both better than nothing. However, DO NOT underestimate locking your bike in such circumstances. Of course it isn’t always practical to carry your bike three flights of stairs before you cycle two blocks for small grocery shopping, so you need to balance practicality (how often do you use your bike vs. what’s the effort you need to take to park it) and security (value of bike vs. risk level of your best outside parking possibility).
Don’t give thieves the space to get creative with tools.
Thieves use tools, and tools need space. Unless you leave your bike unlocked (or locked with a wire lock only, which is practically the same as unlocked), as simple thing as leaving your bike in the middle of the rack can create a hopeless obstacle for the wannabe thieves. Practical example: imagine trying to cut an inaccessible lock with meter long bolt cutters.
Use common sense
Don’t lose your bike to the legal “thieves”.
Don’t park where bike parking is prohibited or where your bike will be an annoyance for others or traffic. It may not get stolen, but cities (at least in the Netherlands) often remove such badly parked bikes from critical places. And even if you know about this and manage to find your bike back your lock will get cut, you’ll have to pay a fine, and go through this whole process which is a pain in the..saddle.
Don’t leave obvious clues.
Parking in front of a theatre that plays from 20:00 till 22:30 gives the thief quite a clear indication of when you’re coming back for your bike. Better park around the corner, and take a 1-minute walk.
Some racks are better than others.
You’ll need to anchor your bike frame to the ground (more on this later), and racks that offer this possibility should be your choice. Said differently, avoid racks and places that only hold your front wheel, or in general do not offer to lock your bike’s frame to it.
2) Locking technique
Use common sense
Anchor your bike’s frame to something solid that cannot be removed or broken.
Let’s continue where we left off right away. Probably the most important point cannot be really clustered under any science: Always, always make sure your frame is locked to something solid & immovable. Anchor. That. Bike. Otherwise you give the thieves opportunity to either load your bike and go, or at least move it a bit further into some side alley and try breaking through lock there, undisturbed. Even worse case, drunk people tend to push bikes into canals here in the Netherlands, or just move it somewhere else for fun. Either way, not a good start of your next journey. Additionally, do not anchor-lock your wheel only, unless you want to end up like this:
Best thing to lock your frame to is obviously a bike rack, but lamp post or solid fence are usually also an ok idea. But always include the frame in this lockup.
Also kinda self-explanatory thing, but try to keep your bike in sight.
Oh, and don’t forget to take the removable parts of your bike, such as lights or cycling computer, with you.
Keep the lock off the ground.
If the lock is directly on the ground, a thief can use a hammer to smash the lock against the hard floor, which will break cheaper models. Also, the closer it is to the ground, the easier it is to use the floor for added leverage in a bolt cutter attack like this. Same goes with the chain locks – if it is loose, it can be pulled to the ground and broken.
Don’t lock the top tube only.
Also, if possible, avoid locking the top tube of the frame only. Twisting the bike can create enough torque to damage the lock. Yet still, if you had to choose, better lock the top tube than only a front wheel…
Don’t fall for the thieve’s deceptive games.
There are couple tricks thieves may, in turn, play with you. One is called “accidentally locked my bike with yours”, the other “unfortunate tire puncture”. The principle is always the same – someone finds your bike attractive but doesn’t dare to steal it right away. They “accidentally” lock their (usually crappy) bike with to your bike, or puncture your tire (sometimes just open the valve), so that either way you have to leave the bike on the spot. Return next day and your bike is gone. The learning here is never to leave your bike on the spot if you encounter such suspicious situation. Call the police to remove the other bike, or take your bike somewhere safer before you get the tire fixed.
Pro tip: Use more kinds of security tools. For instance, GPS trackers are a good detractor for thieves, especially since Dutch municipalities started setting up bait bikes. Even a simple sticker saying your bike is registered somewhere (e.g. BikeFair 😉 could discourage a potential thief.
Lock the bike even inside.
Sometimes, statistics are quite surprising: over 30% (some sources say even over 50%) of bikes are stolen from their owner’s homes or “safe places”. The reasoning is simple here, people overestimate security of “behind the door”. Communal spaces are the worst, but even garages or sheds get broken into, and what’s the most expensive, while also the easiest thing to steal? Your bike, of course. Lock even in the garage.
And in case you don’t have a thing to lock your bike to in your garage/shed/garden, there are even special anchors you can set up to lock your bike. Almost invisible, but awesome helpers when the time comes.
Two is more than one. That is valid for locks, too.
When it comes to counting seconds that thieves get to steal your bike, “2>1” can switch an attractive bike into “nah, too much hassle”. It’s not just the extra protection, with a second lock you also increase the chance at least one of them is out of reach, or thieves do not have tools for one of them. Thus, when buying a second lock, you don’t usually need the top notch one, but always differentiate from your primary lock. For most bike types, ring locks work great as a secondary backup – light, portable, extremely hard to beat in a public place.
Pro tip: Given that you’ve read an article on bike security this far, you probably really care about keeping your bike safe. In that case, consider buying a hyper strong “stationary” chain (such as this ART5 Pro-Tect chain) you’ll always keep on your regular parking spot. That way you have a super-safe harbour without dragging much weight on the go.
Fill your lock.
If possible, “fill” your lock like on this picture:
This one is especially valid for U locks. Many of the thieves’ tools require space within the lock – for instance, “bottle jacks” use pressure between the parallel parts of the U-lock. Fill it in, and you eliminate quite some of the usable tools. Free-hanging chain locks can be, on the other hand, pulled close to ground and lever-cut with bolt cutters.
Summary of the locking techniques:
There are of course other aspects of securing your bike, such as choosing the right lock, using alarms or GPS trackers etc. – but let’s get to those in some other dedicated articles. Have a safe trip!