How to Prevent Bike Theft

Yesterday we went for a staff happy hour in an area of Vancouver that has a disproportionately high rate of bike theft. I locked up to a bike rack just around the corner from the patio, but when I realized I couldn’t see my bike from our table, I got up and moved it to a parking meter so it was situated firmly in my line of vision. Now some might find that a bit excessive. It was still bright out, on a busy downtown street, with another busy patio bar right next to the bike rack. And I have two locks and no accessories that can be removed without tools. 

But I also have a nice bike that I spend most of life on, so I’m rather determined to keep it. 

About an hour into our chat, I glanced over my coworker’s shoulder to see a man hunched over my bike. He was there for no more than a few seconds, then he was walking away with my seat post and saddle. Then I was flying over the fence of the patio and taking it back from him. Then he was gone, and I was back at my seat at the table, with my saddle in hand. The entire interaction was over in 30 seconds. 

I don’t have a quick-release seat post, but bike thieves carry hex keys. 

When I returned to my bike a minute later to reinstall the seat post and leave, a man taking a smoke break right next to my bike was apologetic. “I’m so sorry,” he said. “I didn’t even realize that was happening, I thought he was just unlocking his own bike.” 

And unfortunately, that is exactly the reality that bike thieves operate efficiently under. Someone stealing a bicycle appears remarkably similar to someone unlocking their own bicycle. Most people, even if they’re standing 5 feet away from an active bike theft, won’t realize it’s happening until it’s too late, if at all. And furthermore, it’s not the general public’s responsibility to engage in vigilante justice to prevent a stranger’s bike from being stolen anyway. 

So while bike theft rates are thankfully declining in most North American cities, the problem is still very prevalent. And with the increasing price tag of commuter bicycles, and the fact that many more people are using their bikes as their primary mode of transportation, losing a bike can be a much harder hit to your wallet and your life than just losing a toy. 

So in honour of yesterday’s near miss, here are my best tips for keeping your bike from being stolen: 

1. Never rely on a cable as your primary lock. 

A cable lock can be cut through with a basic pair of bolt cutters, which can be easily concealed in a jacket or sleeve. The biggest determinant to whether or not someone will steal your bike is how long it will take them to cut through the lock, and whether your bicycle is worth that time. Any person who steals bikes will see a cable lock as an easy opportunity, and most thieves will have access to a pair of bolt cutters if they’re not already carrying them. 

2. Use a second or third lock. 

At your most basic, use a solid lock such as U-Lock or folding lock from a reliable company, and make sure you get it through the frame. Read reviews, or talk to your local bike shop about the best locks for your bike’s value. While any lock can be cut through with the right tools and enough time, your aim is to create more hassle for any passing thief, opportunistic or otherwise. A second solid lock or at least a cable to secure your wheels creates more hassle, and makes your bike a less likely target. While the price tag for good locks might seem high, it’s much lower than the price tag to replace your ride.

3. Always bring your bike inside at night. 

Yes, even if that means carrying it up the stairs. Even if it’s all wet. Even if that means it has to sit in your living room. Fewer eyes on the street at night means thieves are able to operate heavier tools for a longer time without fear of being caught. So even a solid lock won’t cut it if your baby is outside at night.

4. Be careful what you lock to. 

Ideally, you will have access to a secure dedicated bike rack. But in the absence of that, be mindful of the security of whatever you’re locking to. Street signs are often screwed into a cradle rather than cemented into the ground, and season thieves have the tools and strategy to easily remove those screws, lift the pole, and be gone with your bike before anyone’s the wiser. If you don’t have access to a bike rack, a parking meter or a solid metal fence is a safer bet than a street sign. I have even heard horror stories of bike racks being pre-cut, then those cuts being concealed with stickers, so all a thief has to do is peel off the sticker and pop your bike out through the cut. It’s a jungle out there, be diligent!

5. Don’t lock to trees. 

Just as a street sign can be removed, any tree small enough to lock to can easily be cut down. Then not only have you lost a bike, but your city has lost a beautiful tree. Same goes for wooden fences. 

6. Lock up anything you don’t want to lose. 

Remove your lights every time you walk away from your bike as those can (and frequently are) grabbed in the blink of an eye. A cable lock is a good bet to secure your wheels, and especially necessary if your wheels are quick release. As I learned yesterday, securing your saddle is also a good idea if you ever want to take your eyes off your bike in a high-theft area, or don’t feel like catapulting yourself out of a meeting to wrestle it back from a thief. CityLab has a great article on the best methods to lock it down, which I will be employing later this afternoon. 

7. Lock your bike inside your garage. 

While you would likely notice if somebody broke into your apartment while you were sleeping, garages are more often out of earshot, and are a frequent target for more dedicated thieves. If you don’t have an unmovable object like a pole within the garage to lock it to, consider installing a bike rack, or at the very least lock it to something too cumbersome to drag away. Like a canoe. 

8. Get your paperwork in order. 

Keep a file with all the necessary paperwork that will make it possible to get your bike back in the unfortunate event it does get stolen. Keeping track of purchase receipts, photos, and the serial number (usually engraved under the bottom bracket) will all be necessary to file an effective claim with the police. Registering your bike with a database like Project 529 and the National Bike Registry will also highly increase the chances of recovery. 

That said, taking extra precautions and investing money in good, dependable bike locks is a much better strategy than counting on stolen bike recovery. Now I wish you a long and happy life with your bike. And if you’ll excuse me, I need to go buy a security bolt for my saddle. 

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