Homeless in Vancouver: Bike thefts rise; is quality of locks falling?
This weekend's front-page story in the Vancouver Sun is about how bike theft is one of the few crimes on the rise in Vancouver.
This suggests at least two things to me: most bike locks are a joke to most bike thieves, and there’s a big demand for bicycles somewhere.
Maybe the thieves are selling the bikes they steal back to the people they’re taking them from. But that doesn’t explain why bikes seem so easy to steal.
How not to buy a bike lock
People choose on the basis of what’s available. That means they purchase many durable goods on the basis of price, colour, and style—selecting a bike lock that way is like letting a bike thief choose for you.
I’ve been told most bike shops choose their stock from the same handful of supplier catalogues, and I can believe it. They seem to be flooded with largely the same selection of good-looking, inexpensive, poor-quality locks.
I think some kinds of locks should be avoided: U-locks under $70, and every plain cable lock, no matter how thick—even the ones in designer colours!
Unfortunately, expensive ones can be just as bad. Kryptonite locks run to very expensive, but I don’t trust them anymore. Their U-locks used to be the gold standard, but having your bike-lock company purchased by a U.S. defence contractor rarely improves the quality of your product. Still many people rate their top-end locks very highly.
I had a bike stolen in 2004, along with the brand-new, redesigned— proof-against-Bic-pens—top-of-the-line, Kryptonite U-lock. Two years later I watched a Fairview resident struggle to open his new, expensive Kryptonite U-lock securing his new, expensive bicycle. The lock was stuck.
I suggested he tap the barrel a few times in case some grit was blocking the mechanism. He did and the poor guy’s Kryptonite U-lock fell to bits.
I still believe in the high quality of German-made Abus locks, which are sold in many bike shops, but they’re not inexpensive.
The quality of the steal, I mean steel
Far from improving, I believe the quality of locks has declined over the last 20 years. I had thought that increasing metal prices might be a factor, but steel prices seem to be at a historic low.
But still. Back in the early 1990s, I expected to pay at least $50 for a very good U-lock. How is it possible that 20 years later, people are still thinking they can get a high-quality lock for that price?
How exactly are lock makers keeping the prices down? I can’t help but wonder about the real quality of the metal used to make most locks today versus 10 and 20 years ago.
Bottom line: one way or the other, I believe locks aren’t getting any better but the thieves are, in terms of both tools and techniques.
Just the existence of portable, battery-powered grinders tips the balance in their favour—grinders can, I think, cut through any padlock shackle or chain that you or I can purchase. And don’t get me started about liquid nitrogen.
I’m happy if your bike is easier to steal than mine
My bike and trailer is secured by six feet, and quite a few kilograms, of hard-to-cut transport chain. It wasn’t so expensive—$40 or so. I got it at MEC.
The U-lock I use is always the weakest part of my security. I keep it oiled, but it still wears out. I’m currently using a mini-U-lock made by Master, but it’s overdue to be replaced. I previously used MEC mini-U-locks, but the quality noticeably deteriorated over a year ago. The newly designed keys were ridiculously easy to damage.
I had to cut my last MEC mini-U-lock off one of my chains. Just to see, I started with a hacksaw—impossible. A grinder took two minutes to cut through the shackle.
When I continued to pull the lock apart and cut off the heat-shrink vinyl coating, I discovered the ends of the U-lock’s barrel—containing the tumblers and stuff—was only capped with plastic!
I nearly have a whole philosophy of bike security. One of my maxims for bicycle security has long been: cheap bike, expensive lock. I still believe you shouldn’t skimp on a lock, but it’s just possible that today’s bike locks are insecure at any price. True or not, I would still always shoot for making my bike harder to steal than the next one.
How not to lock a bike at the library
The Vancouver Sun article (cited in the first paragraph) lists Vancouver’s main library downtown as one of the top spots for bike theft. Back in 2007, I was in the regular habit of taking Fridays off and going to that library to spend six or eight hours using my laptop.
I didn’t have a bike trailer then. I used a three-foot security chain and a U-lock to secure the bike frame and both wheels to a parking meter on the Robson Street side of Library Square. I also removed my seat post.
One Friday I was at the library by about 10 a.m. and went through the routine with my bike. I took my pannier and bike seat and happily spent the next six hours doing nothing important on an underpowered but beautiful first-generation Macintosh iBook. When I came back out to my bike, I had a chilling shock—somehow I’d been distracted after removing my panier and seat post—I never locked up my bike.
It sat leaning against the parking meter—completely unlocked—with binners and drug addicts and whomever walking past it, for six freaking hours! I can’t describe how I felt—stupid and fortunate doesn’t begin to cover it—but I was sure I’d used up my entire year’s stock of luck that one day.