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Becky Jo’s Carfree Life: Locking Habits and Etiquette

Posted by on February 11th, 2020 at 9:20 am

“I chose safety and my burrito.”

I was sitting outside a taqueria, waiting for my to-go order as we do, and I saw, or rather mostly heard, a kerfuffle over bike locks. I wasn’t quite close enough to see exactly what the scenario was for myself, and as it was two people getting a bit heated, I wasn’t about to physically insert myself to get details, but the scene was:

Guy One comes out. Goes to get his bike, and finds another bike is locked to it. Stands confused.

Guy Two comes out, says something about Guy One being a jackass and not leaving any space on the rack for anyone else, so he locked his bike to Guy One’s bike.

Guy One says things.

Guy Two says things back.

They part ways grumbling.

Locking styles. (Photos: Becky Jo)

I apologize for not having a photo or close-up of this exchange, or even how exactly this happened – I chose safety and my burrito. But it got me thinking of all the ways cyclists lock-up their bikes.

To research, I started shooting photos of people’s bikes on racks: how they lock-up their bikes, what it looks like when it gets crowded, the different locking-up styles, different locks, even how differing techniques seem to emerge at different times of day, and so on. I even occasionally go to the Bakery Blocks and they have bike storage on different floors, but it’s just a walk-in-closet-type-thing that’s open for tenants to use. I’m always a visitor, and I honestly don’t know how to use one of the lift-up locking racks, so I always lock-up outside. If you’ve gone to Cup & Bar on NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, they have a few wall-mount bike racks just on the walls. Those of you who’ve been doing this awhile can imagine how curious it is to me, a newcomer, to find all of these different options and styles of bike parking etiquette. For instance, I went to a bike-social function a week ago after dark, and I noticed everyone took in their lights… so I figured I better do the same.

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After all I’ve observed, I have even more questions than answers:

  • Do you lock front or back, or center? I see people who are definitely rear-lock, and wheel, if they can get it. I see plenty that are front and/or mid locks, and they both seem to have made a decision about this choice of where to lock. Why?
  • What’s the etiquette around a crowded rack? I’m certainly not going to lock my bike to yours… that was an extreme observation I hope, but what do you do? How many to a rack? Should bikes be parallel to the U-shaped racks or perpendicular, and jutting into the sidewalk? What do you do when there’s no place to lock-up? Are street signs fair (legal) game?
  • When/why do you decide to take in your lights with you? Do you lock your helmet to your bike?

And this may or may not be related/applicable but I have questions about bike storage on-site. Like the Bakery Blocks open-closet type things, or these lockers at Fred Meyer that look like they could be a scene in the latest Netflix thriller. Some of which are open with locks on them.

  • Do you use bike lockers?
  • Do you use an on-site bike closet? (Do they have a more official name?)

These all seem like things that are simple to figure out, but I feel like when one really starts observing behavior, there’s a lot of idiosyncrasies. These may seem like silly questions to some, but the last thing a new person to any venture wants is to bring down the wrath of the already initiated. Please enlighten me lest I have someone lock their bike to mine and keep me from my burrito.

— Becky Jo, @BeckyJoPDX
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51 Comments
  • Avatar
    Al February 11, 2020 at 9:37 am

    Installing locking skewers on my bike wheels gave me the flexibility to use crowded bike racks. I would use 2 u-locks, one locking rear wheel to frame and then the other locking front wheel to bike rack which is the easiest configuration. Locking frame and rear wheel to the bike rack with a single u-lock is the preferred option of course. You can get a set which comes with a lock for your seat as well.

    I always take bike lights with me. It’s best to have the rear one on your backpack or panier for this reason so that it just comes along with you anyway. Only thing that stays on the bike is the bell. I considered mounting the front light on my helmet but just don’t like the feel of it there so I have it on the handlebars but it’s so easy to mount/dismount that I prefer it that way.

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      John Lascurettes February 11, 2020 at 12:28 pm

      I also use locking skewers. That said, I was told by a mechanic once that they’re fairly easy to defeat with vise grips. Still, making your own bike less convenient usually pushes the opportunity thieves on to the next bike.

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        Al February 11, 2020 at 1:23 pm

        I heard about the vise grip defeat so I wanted to see how this worked on mine and could not figure out a way to do it because the bolt side was shielded. If you tried to turn the other side, then the shielded bolt would also turn and therefore not offer any release. Maybe there are locking skewers out there without the shield for which vise grips work? Or clamp so hard on the shield that the shield actually gives way and allows one to get some purchase on to the bolt? I didn’t want to mess up my skewer so I didn’t try THAT hard.

        Anyway, I do think that the combination of low end bike, with security skewers and 2 u-locks would probably get skipped over in a crowded bike rack. If the bike rack isn’t crowded, then I would just lock directly to the bike frame. Still, the locking skewers worked but I mostly relied on them in Seattle where crowded bike racks are more common.

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          Jason February 11, 2020 at 1:31 pm

          I know of at least two brands of locking skewers: ABUS Nutfix and something else. I have the Nutfix on my p-bike and I will tell you this, there is no way I can see to compromise them with a vice grip. The head spins and you can only expose the nut if you have the bike perfectly level with the ground. I think there is a gravity retraction pin, but I don’t know. And I assume it is non-ferrous.

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        tekniklr February 11, 2020 at 3:08 pm

        I started using locking skewers after someone stole my quick release skewers. (They just stole the skewers; the wheels and frame were all locked.)

        It was especially frustrating because what good would quick release skewers do them while it still made my bike unrideable until I bought replacements.

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        • Becky Jo (Columnist)
          Becky Jo (Columnist) February 11, 2020 at 4:55 pm

          that may be the most depressing and annoying theft story ever. what a jerk. I’m so sorry.

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        Phoenix February 13, 2020 at 1:19 pm

        Just like when running from a bear.. You only _need_ to outrun at least one other person. & with bikes .. you only _need_ to make your bike harder to steal than at least _one_ other.

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    D2 February 11, 2020 at 9:44 am

    I generally lock frame and front wheel then add a cable to the rear if I’m anxious about it. Though it is a relatively safe method, it is about courtesy to me.

    It is amazing how many people don’t seem to understand that if you throw a U-Lock around just the top tube the bike is unstable and can easily be knocked over, smashing up your own equipment and causing a cluster for all the bikes around if it is a busy rack.

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      Jason February 11, 2020 at 11:50 am

      Agree, also, if you leave too much room to move the u-lock around, it can be whacked with a sledge pretty easy. Whereas, if you have it locked up tight, you don’t allow for manipulating the lock into a vulnerable position.

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    Carrie February 11, 2020 at 9:49 am

    I take my lights off my bike because I had mine stolen off of it (in Sellwood!) one night and it was really quite scary to get home in the dark without lights (and home was < 1 mile away). Now one of my bikes has integrated lights, so those of course I don't bring in, but all my other bikes I do. I'm guessing that's why all the folks did so the other evening.

    Regarding parking: I hate the wave racks. I think you're supposed to park perpendicular to the wave, but they are awful with more than two bikes parked on them. The staples hold two bikes each, one on either side parallel to the staple. I use the hanging hooks easily with my 'cross bike, but as I've said elsewhere I don't think I could lift the ebike onto one.

    As for how to lock — my 'cross bike I lock through the rear wheel and frame. It's quick and easy. For the e-bike — that thing is a beast and I just lock it the best I can based on where I am. On Saturday neither of my destinations had bike racks so I had to lock to a railing (I hate that — I hate blocking access for someone else, but I really don't know what to do otherwise. I'm looking at you Ruse Brewing!) and then to a street sign. The street sign is a super unsafe option, but it was in a high pedestrian traffic area and I felt like there were a lot of eyes on it.

    I've had someone accidentally lock their bike to mine before. But that doesn't sound like what happened where you were…..

    IMO, the most important thing is to use a U-lock. Always. And NEVER leave the bike unlocked, even for 'just a minute'. If a place doesn't have parking, I bring my bike inside (Plaid Pantry, etc). I also got locking skewers for my bike, just for my peace of mind. I don't know if they will matter if someone really wants to steal something, but at least *I* don't worry about it 🙂

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      Jason February 11, 2020 at 10:04 am

      I always take my lights and toys off too. I also remove any / all bags. Unless it were a long tail pannier that is part of the bike.

      The wave racks are a nuisance though, I totally agree. You can sometimes, kinda get two bikes in the U part, but it’s dicey.

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    • Becky Jo (Columnist)
      Becky Jo (Columnist) February 11, 2020 at 11:14 am

      Why is the street sign an unsafe option? What am I missing there? I mean, I suppose it’s not ideal, but is it illegal or is it less safe than locking to a rack?

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        John Lascurettes February 11, 2020 at 12:32 pm

        I believe it’s technically illegal, but I’d be surprised you’d get any gruff from a cop unless it was blocking pedestrian access or the like. It is considered insecure because a lot of signs (parking signs in particular) are easy to just lift the whole bike and lock over the top of the pole (remove the sign, lift the bike up and off with the lock).

        Personally, when I’m desperate for a non-staple locking location, I aim for a gas main (who’s gonna cut through that? 🙂 On that note (staples), I also always look at how the staple is mounted to the asphalt. If it’s just standard bolts, I move on until I find a staple with security bolts.

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        • Becky Jo (Columnist)
          Becky Jo (Columnist) February 11, 2020 at 12:53 pm

          Standard bolts vs security bolts! See, I’d not even thought of that! Or lifting a bike up over a sign.

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          idlebytes February 11, 2020 at 1:28 pm

          There’s definitely some thieves in this town compromising bike racks so they can steal bikes. I’ve even seen them cut out of the concrete so they can just be lifted out. I agree it’s always a good idea to give the rack a jiggle and pull on it and move on if it seems compromised. That being said almost half the reported thefts are ones of opportunity where the bike is in a car, garage, shed etc. not locked up at all.

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      WestRiver February 11, 2020 at 2:08 pm

      At Ruse, there’s a bike room in the building where you can lock your bike. It’s down the hall behind the brewery. At least there was when I was there last spring.

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    Jason February 11, 2020 at 9:54 am

    “Guy One comes out. Goes to get his bike, and finds another bike is locked to it. Stands confused.”

    Oh no, this is asking for trouble. I would have taken my bike, with his attached and never returned. No excuse for that. This is basically a crime.

    Now, deep breath…. When I lock my bike, I use an ABUS u-lock and lock the front wheel and the down tube to a stationary object. Simple but effective. If I had qr wheels, I’d use a cable for the back wheel. Very fiddly.

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      John Lascurettes February 11, 2020 at 3:57 pm

      It’s not always a crime.* Sometimes it’s just a mistake. I locked up at a very tight rack space one time while late to a doctor’s appointment. When I came out, there was a nastygram on my bike about being such a d!ck for locking mine to hers and that she had to bus home. I had totally not seen that I had caught one or a couple of spokes in my u-lock. I texted her right away and apologized profusely and told her that her bike was now free — I was mortified that I had done that. I attempted to offer her a coffee or a lunch or something, but she was appreciative of the heartfelt apology as enough.

      * I have heard stories of thieves locking their bike to another’s bike to “claim” it such that the victim leaves to go home or whatever in order to give the thief time to defeat the victim’s lock at some later less-conspicuous time.

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      • Becky Jo (Columnist)
        Becky Jo (Columnist) February 11, 2020 at 4:58 pm

        oooohhhh that suuuucks. one time, one of my kids threw up in another person’s diaper bag. like, sometimes, just the worst crap happens and it looks cruel, but it was just a mistake. I know that feeling of “oh, crap. I’m the jerk here…and I didn’t even mean to be.” ugh.

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        Jason February 11, 2020 at 6:03 pm

        Yeah, that just triggered me because the guy spitefully locked his bike to another bike. Because he felt the other guy didn’t live up to his expectations.

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    Jay T. February 11, 2020 at 9:59 am

    Is there a policy need here? When a building consistently has filled bike racks, could a municipality require it to add more? If not, could the municipality change the building code to require more covered bike parking for future similar developments?

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    • Becky Jo (Columnist)
      Becky Jo (Columnist) February 11, 2020 at 11:07 am

      wouldn’t that be nice? Or… you know how a sports bar has to pay per building capacity number to host a pay-per-view regardless of actual capacity… maybe something like that? Perhaps that’s not exactly diplomatic, but perhaps some ratio thereof?

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        el timito February 11, 2020 at 5:16 pm

        If the parking you crave could fit into the public right-of-way near your destination, you can request the City install a rack or two – https://www.portlandoregon.gov/transportation/72640 .
        This doesn’t work so well at a location like Fred Meyers (private property, entrance a long way from the sidewalk) or where the sidewalk and furnishing zone (think fire hydrants, utility poles) is narrow.

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    Granpa February 11, 2020 at 10:03 am

    Kryptonite U lock around the rack, front wheel and down tube. Cable lock threaded through the seat and rear wheel to the U lock. It doesn’t hurt that the bike I commute on is old and ugly (but quiet and tight) I work down town and always take the lights off it.

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    Champs February 11, 2020 at 10:12 am

    It may be a breach of etiquette—one that I’ve even been called out for—but in general I think people should lock up to wave/squiggle racks like a staple. By all means, use it as designed if parking is tight or the rack is installed well, but be skeptical. Off the hop, it’s a poor design and they are frequently placed where the intended use is either impossible or blocks pedestrian space.

    In brief, I have no intention of apologizing to that guy who was unaffected before, during, or after the 30 seconds I spent “hogging” the rack outside a Plaid Pantry.

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    • Avatar
      Jason February 11, 2020 at 10:14 am

      Well, it is kind of rude to do that. You can get at least twice as many bikes on a wave rack as a staple. You park horizontal to it, and you’re just a BMW driver who parks in two parking spots at once. Is that you?

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        Champs February 11, 2020 at 2:35 pm

        If you read my comment, I’m saying that parking as intended frequently doesn’t work or blocks pedestrians. Nobody should have any qualms about “hogging” spaces because they’re not real spaces.

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        • Avatar
          Jason February 11, 2020 at 2:43 pm

          People on this thread are complaining that there is often not enough parking and they sometimes have to go a few blocks to find parking for their bike. *I* don’t have to contradict you, because others are doing it for me.

          Yes you should be mindful of how you use the bike rack, my previous assessment stands.

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    Jim February 11, 2020 at 10:25 am

    Regarding the choice to lock front or back wheel with frame, I’m guessing:
    Lock the front wheel because it’s easier to remove and steal
    Lock the front wheel because on some bikes it seems to reach with the lock
    or
    Lock the back wheel because it costs more/is harder to replace
    Lock the back wheel because it’s easier to reach with the lock (aka the “Sheldon” method)

    I can see reasons for either, hence perhaps the variation you see.

    Most bikes I see have neither wheel locked, seems like one may as well lock one, although maybe this would cause unease because it highlights that the other wheel isn’t locked (without hauling other locks/cables)

    And then, removable lights get stolen often enough that many people take them with them.

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    • Avatar
      David Hampsten February 11, 2020 at 4:46 pm

      How I lock my bike depends where I am – location and circumstance.

      When I’m in Portland, Seattle, Chicago or DC, I use cheap bolt skewers + New York U-lock + 7-foot cable with both wheels cabled and the frame locked to a secure post, with all accessories removed. (My lights are on my helmet rather than on the bike.)

      When I’m in a less important city with much lower bike theft rates like Charlotte, New Orleans or the Twin Cities, I often will only use the cable if I’m in a sketchy part of town, but I’ll leave all my accessories on my bike, but cable my wheels and panniers.

      In all other communities, I lock the frame to the signpost, leaving everything on the bike, hanging the unlocked helmet on my handlebars. (Most communities don’t even have bike racks, certainly none where you actually need them.) The only bikes stolen in my community are those left unlocked in front of people’s houses, on the lawn or in their porch, night after night – it’s nice living in a community where bike theft is rare.

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    BikeSlobPDX February 11, 2020 at 10:42 am

    If racks are crowded, I look for something down the street. If I were driving, I’d feel lucky to find parking within two blocks, so what’s the big deal about walking half a block if I’m on my bike?

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    • Becky Jo (Columnist)
      Becky Jo (Columnist) February 11, 2020 at 11:02 am

      You know, you’re right. It’s funny now that I bike, I just assumed it would be more direct-to-door. Now that you point it out, that was sort of a silly assumption. I did at one point get into something of a disagreement with Nick Zukin and his idea that “car diet streets” are killing restaurants by proving him wrong and parking my SUV during lunch rush close to a restaurant (within 2 blocks) and eating w/o issue on a “car diet” street. When I did so, I noticed how much simpler cyclists had it with closer bike parking…so when I switched, I just assumed it would always be easier. Good point Mr. Bike Slob; good point.

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      raktajino February 11, 2020 at 11:15 am

      My gut reaction is that people like to keep an eye on their bike while they eat? This is also assuming that the racks are right outside, which I guess happens.

      I agree it’s easier to just walk a block. Then again, when I drive I’m happy to park many blocks away in order to avoid a tricky parking maneuver.

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      • Avatar
        Jason February 11, 2020 at 12:14 pm

        “My gut reaction is that people like to keep an eye on their bike while they eat?”
        Once you become accustom to locking your bike for 8 hours while at work, you forget to worry about it at a cafe stop.

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        • Becky Jo (Columnist)
          Becky Jo (Columnist) February 11, 2020 at 12:57 pm

          These are really good points. Yes, I’d prefer being able to see my bike, but also yes, I work from home most days, so I’m not far from my bike more than a few hours here and there. It’s so eye-opening to read all of these perspectives.

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      raktajino February 11, 2020 at 11:21 am

      I’ve noticed that Fred Meyer is particularly guilty of placing their wave racks *slightly* too close to the wall. Am I supposed to have to turn my wheel in order to use it as designed? Are my wheels bigger than expected? They’re only 26″! The turning can negatively affect my ability to lock up both my wheel and frame, especially with my thicker frame and the rack’s thick pipes. So yeah, I can see why people use them like staples. It’s still a rude move to do so.

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      • Becky Jo (Columnist)
        Becky Jo (Columnist) February 11, 2020 at 11:31 am

        ok, so it’s not just me that thinks FM’s racks are too close. I’ve been rear locking perpendicular to the wave racks at FM after observing others do so, but yeah, my rear tire is up on the building. It doesn’t fit. Funny story: the first time I did it, I put my panniers back on my bike, thinking it was awesome the rack would hold my bike straight while I did it….then realized I couldn’t get my bike out w/o taking the panniers back off. LOL. /dork

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    Carter Kennedy February 11, 2020 at 11:14 am

    I follow the advice of PBOT: U-lock around the seat tube, rack, and rear wheel; sturdy cable through the front wheel and lock. I thread the cable through my helmet straps.

    At a crowded rack, I would never lock to another bike. If there is no room, I find another rack or a post. I would not hesitate to lock parallel to a wave rack if I was confident that it would not be needed by others soon. But normally I would lock pedrpendicular.

    Which brings up a pet peeve of mine. The bike racks in front of the Central library are nearly impossible to use. They must have been there since the 1970s. I keep thinking that by now, surely someone must have replaced them with something more usable.

    I always take my lights with me.

    I have never used a bike box.

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      dan February 11, 2020 at 2:57 pm

      The bike locks in front of Central Library are a poor bet from a theft perspective. I’ve had a light stolen there, and recently someone posted on Reddit Portland that their Rivendell was stolen from those racks during daylight hours. I don’t remember how that bike was locked, but it’s pretty brazen to cut a lock in a location like that in broad daylight.

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        MantraPDX February 12, 2020 at 11:14 am

        I work across the street from Central and can see these racks out of our window. Based on the high foot traffic in the area and number of times we see the cops called I would never recommend someone lock up there unless they can keep eyes on their bike.

        I’ve shooed several would be thieves that were snooping around locked up bikes while rubbernecking to see if anyone is watching.

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    Mike February 11, 2020 at 11:15 am

    What I do depends on a bunch of factors:
    -Where I’m at
    -Daytime/Nighttime
    -The bike I have
    -How the wheels are attached
    -How long I’ll be
    -The lock I have

    Regardless of scenario, lights, the Garmin (if used) and panniers always come with me. I have the Cycliq bike light/cameras so I like to keep them with me.
    If I have have my commuter and I need a quick grocery or library stop under 5 minutes, the Ottolock is fine. Or if I’m somewhere where I can physically see my bike the entire time (outdoor pub patio for example). I’ll also just use the top tube since the front and rear wheels are bolt-on.
    If I’m heading out to a pub, dinner, soccer game, whatever where I’ll be out longer, I’ll use the burly Kryptonite Fahgettaboudit. I’ll lock the rear wheel/frame. I don’t bother with the front wheel. If I had to choose, it’ll always be rear. Rears with cassettes are more expensive than fronts.
    Anything is better than the QR. The rare times I see seats and wheels stolen, they have a QR. Seems like there’s a growing number of thru-axles that need 6 mm bolts to remove. I know it’s a simple tool but the only tool you need with a QR is your hands. The thru-axles take a minute or two to get off.
    It’s all about being the least stealable thing on the racks.
    *If* you have a bike that is worth a lot to you (either $$$ or emotionally) and insist on parking on the street/sidewalk in plain view, understand that regardless of lock, someone may feel your bike is worth more to them than it is to you. Grinding bolts/locks, cutting racks, etc. are ways around a lock. If you insist on riding it, I’d look for ways to get it out of sight.
    I don’t lock my helmet. If someone really wants that stinky, sweaty thing, then God Bless. You may be doing me a favor.
    Staple racks should take 2 bikes parallel, side-by-side.
    Bikes on the wave racks should *not* go parallel to the rack but perpendicular. A wave with 3 ‘humps’ and 2 ‘troughs’ can fit up to 7 bikes; 2 on the outsides, 3 under the humps and 2 in the troughs. Observant people will try to alternate the bike direction so handlebars aren’t knocking and the bikes all fit. Same with the staple locks.
    Regular-sized street sign posts are one of my last choices, although I don’t know if it’s technically legal to lock to one. Some feel that someone could ‘easily’ unbolt the sign and slide your bike up and off. I’m sure it’s happened but I’m going to play the odds and think it won’t. Same with getting a citation. I’m sure it’s happened but I haven’t heard about it here in town.
    Locking to another bike (if it isn’t someone you’re with) is the peak of Portland passive-aggressive behavior. I can’t think of any circumstance where it’s acceptable. I’d wait 2 minutes for the owner and then put 50:50 odds that I walk/ride off with the bike attached to mine. I don’t care if you’re in a hurry and lazy because no spots are open. Your time isn’t any more valuable than mine.

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    • Becky Jo (Columnist)
      Becky Jo (Columnist) February 11, 2020 at 11:34 am

      what is QR?

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        Jason February 11, 2020 at 11:45 am

        Quick Release

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      Jason February 11, 2020 at 11:44 am

      What do you think of the Cycliq camera? And which one(s) do you have?

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    JONAS February 11, 2020 at 11:35 am

    I follow bikeindex advice: use two bike locks. I carry a ulock and a 10mm chain lock. Chain lock helps me lock my bike away from bike rack if its crowded.

    https://bikeindex.org/protect_your_bike

    I also use a double kickstand so I don’t have to use crowded bike racks. Bike racks are not always is line of sight and I find plenty of other things I can lock my bike to besides bike racks. I always assume possibility of someone accidentally locking my bike.

    But if I do see someone locked my bike, I certainly don’t contribute to hostility. Cyclists need to chill and be more respectful to each other. Accidents happen. Thanks for posting this topic for discussion.

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    Castro February 11, 2020 at 11:37 am

    The question as to whether or not to take your various accessories and implements with you is a good one. I myself was a ninja for many a year until it dawned on me one fateful day that y’all are leaving your lights, panniers, helmets and even phones on your locked up bikes when you head in to buy your crème brûlée lattes. Now I’m rockin’ it all fully loaded. Even got a nice selection of fenders in a variety of colors, a few dozen seats with comfy butt-pillows, and a wide variety of other odds ‘n’ sods. I live in LV half the year but when I need need gear I make time for Portland.

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    • Becky Jo (Columnist)
      Becky Jo (Columnist) February 11, 2020 at 4:58 pm

      lol. you’re funny. point taken!

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