Updated: Mar 16, 2022
Unlike many other forms of theft like car theft, bicycle theft is a very common problem (1.3+ million cases in the US in 2006 according to the NCVS) that has a very high reward to risk ratio and a high correlation to the number of people actively riding according to a study by Transportation Research at McGill University. The resale value is sizable and bicycle theft cases are often under-prioritized by police in favor of crimes of greater direct financial cost or violent crime. Despite that however, there are many different kinds of strategies you can implement to reduce the risk of your bike or parts of your bike getting stolen. This article will focus on active security - steps to take every trip ridden for transportation. For information on passive security which doesn’t require your input every trip, please see our post, How to Add Passive Security to Your Bicycle.
As a disclaimer, there is never a 0% risk of theft for any belonging. A determined and well-prepared thief can get your bike, car, etc. if they really want to. Also, our security guides won’t help protect your bike from vandalism as vandals have no desire to ride or sell your bike.
Active security begins with preparing for the kind of trip you’ll be making - where you will be parking your bike, the type of bike parking available, where you will be relative to your bike, and how long you will park your bike for.
If you’ll be very close to your bike and naturally be able to have your eyes on it, you likely won’t need any locks. It would be within ~4 ft in an open, publicly accessible area and within ~10 ft in a private space that you somewhat trust.
Where you will be parking your bike and the type of bike parking available has a big impact on what you should bring with you and the level of security you’d want. For example, when in Wellesley, Massachusetts, a relatively well-to-do town with low theft rates, I could leave my $900 bike at the commuter rail station outdoors with a cable lock and expect to come back to it intact. As for parking outdoors in the San Francisco Bay Area at a major transit station, installing some passive security for my seatpost and saddle and using two strong, double-shackle U-locks around a very sturdy rack tested with a shake test before parking every time would be the minimum level of security I’d be comfortable with.
To determine which level of security your area is in, you can look at your local bicycle coalition’s guide for bicycle parking and security and cross check with the bikes parked outside - are there any parts missing? What locks are being used? How are the locks being used? How are the bikes positioned? Adjusting your security levels for slightly above the risk threat you observe will help you keep your bike for a longer period of time.
Wherever you park, make sure that it can hold your bike steady without easily damaging it. It’s preferable to have something that supports the bike frame. If you need to lean your bike against a parking structure, it’s preferable to lean it toward the left side as the right side has the transmission system that can be damaged or pushed out of alignment with a harsh collision with the ground.
Do avoid structures with thin bars and structures with bars that only tightly grip parts of a wheel. They can easily be bent out of shape and warp the shape of your bike's wheels.
When parking outdoors in a theft-prone area, avoid parking for more than 45 minutes. Regardless of the location when you ride for transportation, avoid parking your bike outside without rain protection during stormy weather and avoid leaving it out overnight.
In an area with frequent bike theft, two U-locks are the minimum amount required to secure both wheels and the frame of your bike - the most valuable and frequently targeted parts if not the entire bike. To secure them well, one U-lock would go through the rear triangle, capturing the frame and the rear wheel. Use your best lock as the frame and rear wheel are the two most valuable parts of your bike. The rear wheel can cost $300+ to replace without including time and energy needed to go get that done.
The other U-lock would secure the front wheel which can cost $100+ to replace.
How it looks with two U-locks.
If you do not have a second U-lock, a cable can also be looped through the front wheel which may be enough in some areas.
This principle applies whether you’re at a U-rack, a bike-outline shaped rack, a sign pole, or other forms of sturdy structures.
Fortunately, there are also options other than outdoor bike racks. If you can bring your bike to your desk at work, bring your bike into a campus building where you can keep an eye on it, or bring your bike into a secured room with security cameras that is restricted to only folks you can trust, you may not need to bring any locks with you!
As for other outdoor options, lockers can be great to use. Standard lockers are rentable with a key for dedicated access. Electronic lockers can offer more flexibility in locations you can use and can be accessed using a card like BikeLink.
You may also find group parking areas with racks inside. Depending on what you know about the character of people who can access it and how well they follow the rule of only allowing themselves to enter, you may be able to use no lock or just one lock to prevent someone from mistakenly taking your bike when they’re not at their best mental state.
Aside from active security related to which parking structure you use, there is also the option of using one or more GPS trackers. GPS trackers can be a good way to deter theft and help with recovery in the case of one. You arm it each time you park, usually through a mobile app.
They can be mounted externally on your bike or inside one of the parts such as your bike frame and handlebar. If you do go with an externally visible one, ensure that it has security screws to mount it like the ones used in the Boomerang Cyclotrac and not commonly used ones for general hardware.
Once you finish positioning and locking your bike, be sure to take any loose accessories with you like panniers, helmet, and unsecured lights. Bike saddles and seatposts are also commonly stolen in theft-prevalent areas. If you don’t like removing and re-mounting accessories on your bike, consider using any combination of passive security methods to prevent unauthorized removal in this article.
There have been many ideas and strategies presented in this article. To make things easy to begin implementing, start by asking:
What is one trip that you make or will make most frequently or which area do you worry about parking your bike most frequently?
What are the most relevant 1-2 strategies that you can implement within the next 7 days that would help alleviate your worries the most?
Here’s an example: Let’s say the trip you make most frequently is biking to your main school building or workplace where the policy is that you must park your bike outside at designated upside-down U-racks right outside the building. Currently, you’ve been using a U-lock as you’ve heard about theft and it’s in an urban-leaning area. The most immediate strategies you can implement are to observe the other bikes (or lack thereof) at those U-racks, check the integrity of the U-racks, and get another high-quality U-lock to be able to lock both wheels and the frame of your bike.
You can add on additional strategies and advocate for improvement of infrastructure to make it parking easier and more secure afterward.
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We would love to hear your thoughts and what worked well for you.
If you would like to go deeper with other bicyclists or potential bicyclists in your organization and have me help in a live setting and practice good locking and parking behavior together, check out my bike security workshop. It can help save them hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars each, reduce solo driving, and reduce friction from undesirable bike parking behavior.
Happy biking and safe parking!