When it comes to bike theft; don’t despair, prepare

(Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

Our recent story about a thief who unscrewed the bolts of a rack to steal a bike has added to the common concern that it’s simply too risky to park a bike downtown — or anywhere in Portland for that matter.

I understand that concern, but I worry more about what it means for bicycling more broadly than what it means to the specific issue of bike theft. With road rage, unsafe road designs, lack of bike lane maintenance, and so on there are already too many things that make people think twice before getting on a bike. Let’s not allow bike theft to be on that list!

I’ve been biking in Portland for 18 years now and I’ve been steeped in the risks posed by thieves. Even so, I have never once been so scared of losing a bike that I won’t park it around town. Am I just naive? Do I not care about my bikes? No. I simply take steps to give myself confidence that my bike will be there when I return. And the more I hear from people who say they won’t ride due to fear of theft, the more I feel like sharing information and tips is a good way to cut down on that sentiment.

So here are a few things that might boost your peace of mind around bike theft:

Use a u-lock or two: Cable locks are not good enough. The best thing you can do is to buy a high-quality u-lock or heavy-gauge chain lock (spend at least $50) and make sure you attach it to your frame and the rack (or better yet, your frame and a wheel and the rack). Then buy another u-lock. If you have an e-bike where cargo weight is less of a concern, it’s much easier to justify hauling around the extra weight of two locks.

Don’t keep accessories on your bike: Anything that is not bolted onto your bike will be stolen. I realize that thieves will even unbolt and take some accessories, so this is about mitigating risk. When I lock up my bike, I make sure there’s nothing on it that can be easily swiped by simply loosening a lever. I know it’s a hassle to take off your lights every time, but it’s worth it (it’s also a good reason to invest in generator lights that are bolted on).

Location is everything: Where you park your bike matters just as much as how you park your bike. I am very conscious of the spots I choose. Make sure you choose a spot that is well-lit and out in the open where there’s a lot of foot traffic. Bonus is if you can see your bike from inside your destination. If there’s not a good location near my destination, I will always walk out of my way to find one. I will also be more likely to take my bike inside with me if a business doesn’t have a secure parking location.

Examine the rack itself: Make sure the thing you lock up to is solid and secure. Give it a shake. If bolts are loose, find a different spot. If the design of the rack forces you to lock poorly, move on.

Get creative with theft deterrents: Consider adding a wheel lock to your bike. Those are sort of like “The Club” for cars because they prevent your bike from being ridden once it’s stolen. Same with a fork lock, a much less common accessory but one I find invaluable on one of my main bikes. It’s a metal pin that locks the force in place and makes the bike impossible to steer or ride. Other folks will ride a low-quality bike that doesn’t look as attractive to thieves.

Advocate and organize!: I wish we could expect bike theft to be solved for us, but we need to continue to speak up and organize in our community. Push your local businesses and leaders to build more secure bike parking facilities, educate elected officials and policymakers about the problem and urge them to devote more resources to it, make secure bike parking part of your advocacy diet.

Get engaged and informed about the root cause: Most people don’t enjoy stealing your bike. They do it because they are desperate and need money, or because they’ve slid into a life of crime due to other systemic issues. This is why all of us should care about finding solutions to poverty, homelessness, and other conditions that put people on the knife edge between good and bad choices. Bike theft doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Everything is related.

I hope this list is helpful. We cannot give up and be defeated by this issue. Don’t despair, prepare. And keep riding — and parking! — your bike.

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David Hampsten
1 month ago

When I first moved to Portland in 1997, I was locking my bike downtown to a common staple rack with a brand new New York long shackle U-lock, when an old geezer came up to me and carefully showed me the best way to use that said lock – run it through the rear wheel and chainstay just behind the crank, and around one of the staple bars – the point being that you want as little metal showing so that theieves can’t get any leverage with their pry bars nor enough space to cut with an angle grinder. He also suggested I buy a 7-foot braided cable to secure the front wheel and any bags on the bike. Finally he told me to hide the yellow plastic on the lock with black duct table or electrical tape so that thieves wouldn’t know beforehand how good my lock was (and thus the value of my bike), and more readily give up when they can’t pry the lock off. I lived in Portland for 17 years and never lost a bike nor any major components, largely thanks to that unknown stranger’s advice.

Someone ought to start a bike lock 101 class in Portland for every new resident.

squareman
squareman
1 month ago
Reply to  David Hampsten

I learned most of these things through this site and through SheldonBrown.com (as well as many of the other things listed in the article above). Sheldon’s site is often where I steer friends not in Portland, who are new to biking as transportation, as an excellent resource. Despite it not being updated since his death several years ago, enough people saw value in it to keep the site running (still) as well as provide mirrors of it.

soren
soren
1 month ago

I realize that thieves will even unbolt and take some accessories

A thief broke my chain (KMC missing link) and stole my derailleur while I was shopping at Winco. After more than a decade of biking to Winco, I now use my franken-Leaf EV.

Al Dimond
1 month ago

Carry two U-locks. Ride an e-bike to manage the extra weight. An e-cargo bike to get it off your back. Move to a new building so you have a good place to park and charge it. Worry about charge when a day of errands goes long. Worry about theft and deterioration of a big, expensive battery. Worry about whatever cargo bags are attached every time you park.

After my U-locked bikes got stolen out of my apartment building’s bike room for like the third time I started riding an old 26er MTB (with wide but smooth tires for the city). Chain lock wrapped around the seat post, replaced all QR stuff … barely even think about locking the wheels anymore. Front suspension is good for the deteriorating pavement. It’s not for everyone but … the three true virtues of a bicycle are being cheap, simple, and small, and going cheaper and smaller has been the answer for me.

FDUP
FDUP
1 month ago
Reply to  Al Dimond

A basic 26″ or 700mm ride with wider smooth street tires and the QR components switched out for something more secure is the way to go. Fenders, rack, lights are all very helpful in city, bolt it all down or take it with you, same goes for bags.

I’ve tried suspension forks but haven’t been impressed by the weight (heavy), lifespan (short) or performance (meh). IMO a good quality steel fork is the way to go.

For U-locks I like Abus, IMO better quality and security than Kryptonite. For component locks I like Pitlock.

idlebytes
idlebytes
1 month ago

Most theft in this town is opportunity unlocked/poorly locked bikes in garages, sheds, cars, or basements so make sure to lock up properly in those places too or find a spot in your home. I used to check the bikeindex map frequently and my anecdotal estimate is those thefts account for about 50% of bike theft here. Most of the remaining 50% are poorly locked bikes out in the world e.g. through just a wheel or with only a cable.

The handful of more professional type thefts like with an angle grinder seem less random and more planned. For those other than multiple high quality locks I suggest that if you bike to the same location at the same time often try to lock your bike up in different locations. The small number of grinder attacks I remember were on bikes that were locked up for work or school each day so the thief knows how long and when the bike will be unattended.

Last thing if you don’t like carrying multiple u-locks a folding lock is a good second lock alternative. The abus bordo granit x-plus has come down in price and is almost as secure as a nice u-lock. I’m able to lock my frame twice and both wheels to the regular and narrow staple racks with that combination.

FDUP
FDUP
1 month ago
Reply to  idlebytes

An old rule of thumb is that all you need to do is lock your bike better than the bike next to yours is locked.
😉

Jessica
Jessica
1 month ago
Reply to  idlebytes

Most of the problem is that PPB won’t even begin to look at these thefts, imo. We had an expensive Ebike in our building’s locked garage, locked with pick resistant locks and security cameras. Yet someone picked the lock to get into our building and then also managed to pick the lock on the bike and they were caught on video – and PPB never even asked for the video footage. And ours wasn’t the first bike this person had stolen from our building either. Until there are some kind of consequences, it’s basically legal to steal a bike.

cp_1969
cp_1969
1 month ago
Reply to  Jessica

I would imagine that bike theft is probably very low on the list of priorities for Portland Police. We’ve all heard about the crazy increase in murder rate, stolen cars, vandalism, homeless camps, etc, etc, etc… over the last few years.
I seriously doubt the police have resources to throw at something like bike theft.
That’s why I live in the suburbs and rarely go downtown anymore.
I’ve lived in downtown Portland, NW Portland, Close in SE, Close in NE from about ’92-’99. I rode downtown all the time and locked my bike all the time. Never had a bike stolen.
But Portland was an entirely different city then than the cesspool it is now.
There is NO WAY you could convince me to lock a bike in Portland nowadays.

Todd/Boulanger
1 month ago

To add onto Jonathan’s great suggestions:

  • Rack design: you may need to avoid even bike racks without lag bolts – like the one in the lead photo – as you do not know how well they are secured under those tree pavers [few if any city/ county inspectors do post project inspections on the quality of the installation, they only count spaces for the occupancy permit most likely];
  • Sadly a $50 does not buy much of a lock from PRC anymore…$100 is likely the threshold these days if its not on sale and your are buying from a local IBD;
  • Locks: just like covering up the brand of a lock, you should also consider mix and match your lock types or brands, so the thief cannot just rely on their best / preferred method when selecting a bike;
  • Look for an in street bike corral as many of these staple racks are pretty robustly welded to their base rails …making it a large package to portage with the bike if its securely locked to it; AND
  • Smart [Bike] Park: For long term commuter/ shopper quality secure bike parking we really need our cities and transit agencies to implement a “Smart Park” network for bicycles (and scooters)…be it a ‘Bikestation’ or BikeLink smart lockers (like the City of Vancouver has downtown)…if not for cyclists peace of mind then for the successful climate crisis KPIs everyone is adopting. This technology has been mature for over 12 years in the US…its just not as sexy for public agencies like bikeshare / scooter share.https://www.bikelink.org
squareman
squareman
1 month ago

Making sure your own bike is less convenient or easy to steal makes it less of an opportunistic target, regardless of the value of the bike. If a thief sees an easier or quicker mark, they’ll usually go for that. The harder and longer you make it on the thief – should they choose to go for your bike anyway – the more likely they are to get caught (though too many still get away with it). While some people are ounce counters, security is one place where one should not sacrifice performance for a few ounces.

I’ve haven’t had a bike stolen yet in 20 years (knock wood), but I have had a car stolen and totaled from stripping within 3 months of moving to Portland. I’ve always taken property theft pretty seriously in this town ever since.

Bryan Hance (The Bike Index)

… aaaaand register your bikes folks – bikeindex.org

Brian
Brian
1 month ago

I also picked up a little AA-battery powered bicycle alarm. Definitely not something to rely on as a primary deterrent, but i haven’t lost anything or had my bags rifled thru since using it.

FDUP
FDUP
1 month ago

Knock on wood I’ve never lost a bike to theft my entire life. The closest I ever got was downtown in Portland at Dante’s around 2007 or 08. I was ordering a slice of pizza from the outside window with my bike leaning against the wall right next to me and this guy tried to jack it. Long story short, he had the jump on me but crashed it half a block away and I got it back. My only regret is not kicking him in the nuts.

Second time was also in DT PDX – while I was attending a BAC meeting someone cut a cable lock cut off my bike downtown but it was double locked with a u-lock so it was still there when I got back.

The only other time was prehistoric, in elementary school, when someone got my $1.00 1/4-inch 3-number combo cable lock open and took my paperboy bike for a joy ride but returned it.

Jonathan’s advice is all good, and using integral component locks for wheels, seat posts, headsets and other assemblies is also worth it if you leave your bike anywhere in public for any length of time. Sheldon Brown’s website also has some good advice regarding locking up.

(Pro tip – Gas meters are even better to lock up to than the securist staple rack, no one is cutting into a gas line to steal a bike.)

Mike Quigley
Mike Quigley
1 month ago

Buy a lightweight bike, then pack around 30 pounds of locks to protect it.

Joanie Chaco
Joanie Chaco
1 month ago
Reply to  Mike Quigley

Buy an ebike to carry the massive lock required to keep your $5k grocery getter from being disassembled and scattered in the bushes along the Springwater. We’re so sustainable!

Barbara
Barbara
1 month ago

I’m one of the ones who have given up. Just not worth it. I used to bike everywhere for over 30 yrs. Run errands Dr apts, commute etc. But having to carry 2-3 locks and then take everything off and then on the bike once its parked then drag it into the store and sometimes required to leave it behind the counter or when trying to run errands not worth it especially when all that is longer than the errands. Then one has to worry if their bike will still be there when they come out and if it is rideable. Add to that issues with getting harrassed. So discouraging and disappointing. A loss.

Frank Perillo
Frank Perillo
1 month ago
Reply to  Barbara

my kids were hardcore into riding everywhere including shopping. The last straw was when BOTH of their bikes stolen at the same time on grocery shopping trip. They now drive everywhere for errands and just ride for “fun” now if that can even be had in this city.

Tomas Paella
Tomas Paella
1 month ago
Reply to  Frank Perillo

Less so now that every car-free path is littered with encampments, trash and piles of disassembled bikes.

Instead of doing a quick run out to Boring and back on the Springwater, I load up bike and drive out to Banks-Vernonia where I don’t have to fear for my own safety.

Patrick
Patrick
1 month ago

Always us a high quality U-lock but downtown I also carry an American 700 Lock and a RIGGERS CHAIN. This chain is what is used for loading and unloading containers at a port. I got the chain at Atlasta Lock & Safe, to cut the chain they use an angle grinder and have to cut both sides of the chain. In the shop it takes a fair bit of time. It’s big, heavy and a pain-in-the-ass but if is the closest you can get to a guarantee that your bike will still be there when parking on the street.

As to HOW to lock your bike Bike Snob has some good advice:
https://youtu.be/WGcuc20SqCU?t=1

Joanie Chaco
Joanie Chaco
1 month ago

Get a “beater” ebike, something cheap in the $5k range so it won’t be a hardship if you lose one every now and again.

Chris I
Chris I
1 month ago

Has anyone here ever tried a Skunk Lock?

https://www.skunklock.com/

Peter Cloynes
Peter Cloynes
1 month ago

Most people don’t enjoy stealing your bike. They do it because they are desperate and need money, or because they’ve slid into a life of crime due to other systemic issues.

This feels simultaneously like an excuse for thieves and a condemnation of the large population of poor / houseless / desperate who aren’t bike thieves.

Really weird to see a cycling advocacy outlet take a pro-theft stance.

How about we separate the wheat from the chaff, and prosecute criminals?

qqq
qqq
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter Cloynes

I think the statement is likely true. It’s not doing any of the things you claim. It’s not excusing thieves, or condemning non-thieves. It’s certainly not pro-theft. It’s also not saying to not prosecute criminals.

Watts
Watts
1 month ago
Reply to  qqq

I think the statement is likely true.

Of course it’s true on some level. Thieves are desperate for money (but not so desperate they’ll get it legally), and if they’re stealing bikes, clearly they’ve “slid into” crime. And claiming it’s all the system’s fault is not exactly pro-theft but it does grant absolution, as if people have no agency.

Some folks do enjoy stealing bikes. I have two friends who served time for theft (back when that was a thing), and neither stole because they had to.

Personally, I see the issue clearly: Bike thieves are scum.

Ollie Burnside
Ollie Burnside
1 month ago

I simply take steps to give myself confidence that my bike will be there when I return. And the more I hear from people who say they won’t ride due to fear of theft, the more I feel like sharing information and tips is a good way to cut down on that sentiment.

It seems like this article is intended to silence those who are worried about bike theft after seeing– every day in this town– an absolutely huge amount of evidence that they should be worried about it.

But then it goes on to detail all the strategies, the hassles, the mental (and physical) baggage of actually locking up a bike in Portland circa 2022. So much for tamping down the fear, I guess.

Portland didn’t used to be like this. It’s gotten remarkably worse in the last few years and there seems to be some weird “damage control” / gaslighting from those who feel like they have something to lose by admitting that we have problems. The leisure class seems especially threatened.

squareman
squareman
1 month ago
Reply to  Ollie Burnside

I don’t know about all that as far as it being worse – even if it’s more visible. When I moved to Portland 20 years ago, Portland already had one of the largest black markets for stolen bikes, including stolen bikes from other municipalities because Portland was a U.S. market with one of the highest resale value for used bikes because of demand. I’ve always taken bike theft very seriously in this town. Meanwhile, at the same time, stolen autos were exported where they had higher resale value. Stolen bikes imported; stolen cars exported – to maximize black market value. I wonder with the dead plateau or even cratering of ridership numbers lately whether a hot bike gets the value on the dollar it once did.