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How to Prevent Your Bike From Getting Stolen

It is estimated that over 1.5 million bicycles are stolen every year (National Bike Registry). Who doesn't know someone whose bike was taken? Sadly, my wife has had two bikes stolen in Chicago.

So what's an average rider to do? Carry three locks and mount a camera on your bike? I took a hard look at the data behind stolen bikes to understand better what's going on. And more importantly, what good practices you can use to minimize the chances of your bike getting stolen.

Personal Experience with Bike Theft

"Someone CUT a small tree in half to steal this bicycle. The tree top was discarded in my alley. A saw was used to cut half way through and then the tree was ripped the rest of the way."

As I mentioned my wife has lost two bikes to theft. The first was the result of leaving our garage door open for 5 minutes. Shame on us for being so careless living in the city. The second theft however was a different matter.

We were shopping at REI and the theft occurred while we were inside the store! Her bike was cable-locked to mine which was u-locked to the rack directly in front of the store. Amazingly, the entire theft was captured by the store video camera. You can actually see the thief walk by the bikes. Ten minutes later he returns with bolt cutters and cuts the cable. Boom! In less than 10 seconds, he has stolen her bike and rides away. The police asked if we knew the individual on the video. In a city of 3 million people there was little chance of that.

Statistics on Stolen Bikes

The Chicago Stolen Bike Registry was originally started in 2004 and has evolved since then. It has an online form to submit a stolen bike report and captures data about the bike, lock, and location of the theft among other pertinent information. You can search the stolen bike reports and see a map of where they occurred. While the registry does not represent every bike stolen in Chicago, it does provide valuable insights into the nature of stolen bikes and key trends. I evaluated data from 2013 to 2015 and made the following observations:

  • Over 25% of the bikes stolen were not locked! How can this be? In many situations, the bikes were stolen from inside of a building, for instance a room in a condo building. or in our case the garage. One rider laments on the report, "bike was stolen from the locked foyer of my apartment building." Stealing an unlocked bike is easy for a any would-be thief.

  • Cable locks represented over 30% of the bikes stolen; this includes cable w/padlock, combination cable locks and cable w/integrated key lock. Cable locks are some of the easiest locks to overcome as we personally experienced.

  • U-locks are approximately 15% of the bikes stolen. U-locks are very popular and it's a credit to the durability of this type of lock that the percentage isn't higher. It is possible to cut a U-lock with an angle grinder but this is noisy and causes sparks, which are not preferable on busy streets during daylight hours.

  • Heavy-duty chain locks were used on 2-3% of the bikes stolen. Less people use chain locks primarily because of their weight and bulk. However, these are effective deterrents. Again, a power tool such as an angle grinder is usually needed to break these locks, however it takes more time to crack these types of locks. Best left to professional crooks.

  • Bike thefts (as reported) declined 11% from 2013 to 2014 and down again over 12% from 2014 to 2015. These declines occurred despite the fact that there are more riders in Chicago. Perhaps less people are reporting stolen bikes. Alternatively, I'd like to believe that bike theft is declining in the city.

The frame and front wheel are secure, but the rear wheel was not.
Beautiful FELT bike with cable lock on streets of Chicago; how long until it gets stolen?

Preventing Bike Theft

From my analysis, it seems that stolen bikes are a crime of opportunity. Bikes that can be taken quickly and easily are the most vulnerable. So what can you do prevent theft or reduce the changes of your bike getting stolen? Minimize the opportunity.

  1. Lock the bike. Even if it's inside, especially in a common storage area, ensure the bike is secure.

  2. Make sure you know how to lock a bike. Here's a video from the Metropolitan Police in London to show how it's done. It's critical to lock the frame, and ideally the wheels, to an secure, stationary object. (See the quote above about someone who locked the bike to a tree that was cut-down.) If you can only lock one wheel and the frame, make sure its the rear wheel which is significantly more valuable than the front wheel.

  3. Use a quality U-lock or chain lock made from hardened steel. These locks are not invincible, however they will make your bike less desirable than others.

  4. Even better, use two different types of locks to secure the wheels and frame. This requires that a thief use two different kinds of tools for your bike. Not desirable.

  5. Consider carefully where you park the bike outside. A secluded ally is an ideal location for a thief to operate. A busy street is preferable, especially if power tools are needed to nab your bike.

  6. Avoid leaving your bike outside overnight. If you bike to work and need to leave the bike overnight, ask your building management if there is a location you can secure the bike. Increasingly, commercial buildings are adding indoor bike parking as an amenity.

  7. Register with the bike index which is a free service. All bikes have a unique serial number. If your bike is registered and later recovered by law enforcement or a bike shop, you may be able to reunite with your bike.

Have you had a bike stolen? What was your experience?

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