A World Without Bike Locks: Inevitable or Impossible?

Carrying a lock is an annoyance. For most commuters and utility cyclists, there is very little way around it. If you ride from home to work and back everyday, you can leave your lock in your bicycle parking area at work (if you don’t need it at home), but if you want to stop for groceries or grab dinner after a day at the office, you’ll probably be needing that lock. Packing a lock in a messenger bag, in a pannier or on a lock bracket is something that transportation cyclists have come to accept. But does it have to be?

There is more than one team of entrepreneurs working to find a solution to the bike lock/theft dilemma. Sanitov Bicycles, for example, has designed a cargo bike with a built-in GPS tracking system that will help the bike’s owner to locate the bike should it go missing. This sounds like a brilliant idea, and combined with the bike’s ability to track mileage and caloric expenditure, the Sanitov S+ GPS tracking system is a nice product feature. However, you still need a lock. Unless you plan on hanging a friendly sign explaining the fact that you will be able to track your bicycle should a thief decide to take it for a ride, you still risk walking out of your office and having to spend time and energy finding your stolen bike.

Photo: weBike

At the University of Maryland, a group of college kids came up with a different idea to make bicycles more accessible on campus. The weBike “station-less bike fleet” is an alternative bike share program that can be implemented at a much lower cost and lower volume than the larger bike share stations that exist in metropolitan areas such as Washington, DC, Paris and Chicago.

weBike uses text messaging to communicate lock combination codes to users, and users then text a reply to the same number upon returning the bike. This concept could be a very useful way to allow students to access bikes from a college dorm or apartment complex, but the riders will still need to take the lock with them and without the proper incentives to return the bikes within a reasonable period of time to a reasonable location, this system could turn into a logistical nightmare.   Unfortunately, the one active program on weBike’s website appears to have thirteen bikes under maintenance, one bike that has been checked out every time that I have visited the site, and one bike that is currently available.

Photo: SoBi

Perhaps the Social Bicycles endeavor will be the answer. SoBi allows cyclists to use their mobile phones to locate SoBi bicycles and unlock them by entering their accountant information in exchange for a lock code. In an attempt to address the aforementioned redistribution issue, SoBi will allow operators to create zones and to charge the rider a fee for leaving a bike outside of the designated zones. According to Ryan Rzepecki, SoBi’s founder, the SoBi bicycles will be not only more convenient but also less expensive than traditional bike share systems that utilize docking stations.

SoBi Social Bicycle
Photo: SoBi

It would be lovely if, from all of these different ideas, someone could develop the technology to limit or eliminate the need for bike locks. Is there a way to create a mobile device application that, in combination with a locking system similar to that of the SoBi bikes, would allow cyclists to lock and unlock their bikes without carrying a U-lock? Would anyone go for this technology or would the contraption that lives on the back of the SoBi bike cancel out the weight-savings and convenience of not carrying a lock?   It is encouraging to see these cycling enthusiasts working to push the envelope to make bicycles more accessible, but whether any of these ideas can be put into practice for a sustained period of time remains to be seen.

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21 thoughts on “A World Without Bike Locks: Inevitable or Impossible?”

  1. Steve says:

    Apple has proven that even when you have a GPS tracker and 4 cops with badges and guns to help you raid a house, you are still not guaranteed to find that iphone you lost when you got drunk in a bar last night.

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      But bikes are much bigger than iPhones. To the extent that car-based systems like LoJack work (although not with a 100% success rate), couldn’t a bike system be nearly as effective?

      I didn’t even know that I got drunk in a bar last night — or that I had an iPhone! Damn!

  2. R. White says:

    solution? affordable light weight locks using the super-materials available today, which would allow for carrying and using a long cable lock without the need for a U-lock.

    How about an internal crank lock of some sort that would render the bike un-pedalable when locked?

    Combine that with bike racks in highly visible locations. Cities have parking requirements for businesses (number of spots, number of handicap spots, etc). An allowance for bike parking should be a part of that.

  3. I talked to the guy who owns this company in Reno, NV. He has a bike rack that’s like a bike share kiosk with credit card reader and a way to securely clamp the bike to the kiosk, but it doesn’t require a proprietary “bike share” bike design to use.

    The idea: You roll your bike up to the rack and clamp the integrated lock to your bike. Swipe your credit card (or transit pass or university ID card or whatever) to activate the lock and get a punch in code to unlock later on.

    The clamp goes around the top tube (or whatever tube you have handy on your bike), but cables to secure your wheels.

    There are apparently several dozen of these installed in Reno now — working to get confirmation of that and find some photos.

  4. Paul in Minneapolis says:

    I love my bikes too much.. I’ll just carry the best locks and love knowing that my bike will most likely be there. It is the sad truth that most people don’t care and make it much easier for the thief…

    Anyway, an extra 3 or 4 pounds on a my loaded bikes that weigh over 50 pounds (Dutch city touring bike) is not noticeable…

  5. Wish I could “like” (or +1) this reference to the lastest lost iPhone saga a la Facebook or G+ 🙂

  6. Jaime Roberto says:

    We still lock our homes. We still lock our cars. I don’t see that ever changing. Same with our bikes.

  7. Gene @ BU says:

    I had an old used and abused Honda motor scooter and the lock was integrated into the front fork. Turn the fork, lock it, and forget about it. Perhaps a fork lock with a motion alarm is all that’s needed for bikes.

    On the other hand locks only keep honest people honest.

  8. Ted Johnson says:

    What I’d like to see is a GPS-based system on the bike that mates wirelessly to the bike owner’s keyfob. (Kind of like a Prius.)

    If the bike detects the keyfob, the bike can be taken anywhere and left anywhere. However, if the bike doesn’t detect the keyfob, and the bike is moved more than, say, ten yards, all hell breaks loose. Lights, alarms, Navy Seals rappelling down the sides of buildings, etc. Well, if not all that, a near certainty that the thief will be caught if they don’t put distance between themselves and the bike.

    The ten-yards rule would allow a good Samaritan to upright a bike that had fallen over, or otherwise jostle a bike that was in a bike rack.

    And, of course, there would have to be a recognizable marking on the bike that thieves would recognize as a deterrent so that none of this hell-breaking-loose would have to happen.

  9. Dolores says:

    Zipcar has managed to come up with a way around this for cars — keys are left in the car, but you need a zipcar credit card to open the door and to start it.

    I would think that there should be some way to use the same technology in bikes eventually.

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      Right! A bike is somewhere in-between a car and an iPhone in stealability. A Zipcar (being a car) is not as easy to throw into the back of a truck and then later disable the security. Zipcar and iPhone’s both have GPS capability. So a bike with the GPS capabilities of a Zipcar would probably be easier to recover than an iPhone.

      The trick is making it difficult to disable the GPS, or making the bike unusable if the GPS were to be disabled.

      Alternatively, some relativistic physics could be employed to make the bike weigh two tons unless the owner was with it, and weigh 25 pounds when he or she is with it. Personalized Gravity control. I’ll talk up this idea at Interbike.

  10. Tips says:

    In the future, when everyone has a bike, we won’t need locks, just name tags. Why would I take your bike when I already have one?

  11. walltoall says:

    That swivelling handlebar idea would work for bicycles too although the Honda relied on being too heavy to actually carry.The concept “thinks outside the box”. Combined with built-in crank lock (which is simple and cheap). Thanks from Ireland Good Buddy

  12. Woody says:

    In the old days you’d take your distibutor rotor or some other key part from your car’s engine when parking in a dodgy neighbourhood.

    A lock “disables” the bike, but take the lock away (angle grinder, thermite, whatever) and it’s OK.

    If you had the key “enable” the bike, e.g. allow the cranks to turn, handlebars to move, when you take the key away, the bike is useless. Maybe a keyed shaft which connects your pedals to the crank, or your headset to the forks?

    Problem is – what to do when you lose the key?

    Maybe combine the “Steering Lock” with drop bars, so you can turn your bars trapping a pole between your frame and the bars, then lock the steering?

  13. Mikey Bikey says:

    A Lock is to keep a honest man honest. If a thief wants your bike, he will steal it anyway he can.

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      Ah, Mikey Bikey, but do thieves steal bikes at random? I don’t think so.

      I think thieves make a rational calculation based on (1) the opportunity to acquire the bike, (2) the ease or difficulty of acquisition, (3) the perceived probability of getting caught, (4) the consequences of getting caught, and (5) the value of the bike. The value of the bike isn’t necessarily the resale value of the bike. It could be the value of the bike to the thief for the next hour, who needs a way to get across town. But in the cases where the thief wants to sell the bike, then there is (6) the opportunity to profit from the bike.

      All of these factors are likely at play when a thief is contemplating stealing a bike — and perhaps other factors that a criminal or criminologist would know about.

      Imagine a thief fully equipped with all the tools of the trade, and deciding between two identical bikes. One bike has a U-bolt, and is locked to a solid bike rack. The other bike isn’t locked at all, but is clearly equipped with a GPS-triggered alarm that is installed inside one of the frame tubes where the thief can’t remove or disable it without damaging or partially disassembling the bike.

      Which bike is the thief going to take?

      The answer depends on the thief’s motivation. If her motivation is to sell or keep the bike, she might not want to mess with the high-tech GPS alarm system — especially when the u-bolt is so easy to break. If her motivation is to take the bike for a joy ride, she might be able to put up with the screeching alarm for 15 minutes and then abandon the bike somewhere before the cops show up.

  14. Stacey Moses says:

    My theory (and practice) for bike security (with current applicable technology) is never to be the easiest bike to steal on the rack. When I leave my bike in a public space, I always use a U-lock through the frame and rear wheel and an additional cable to secure my wheels. A thief is going to target the easiest bike to get away with in the least amount of time.

    And honest people do not steal bikes.

  15. Mike Icke says:

    An insignificant price of simple bikes will do that; for simple bikes. Kleptomaniacs will produce the exceptions.

  16. Lisa Black says:

    There’s this, which rather appeals http://www.instructables.com/id/How-To-End-Bike-Theft-The-Honeybike-Project/

    Somewhat kinder is this mobile phone-activated system – not quite the GPS tracker you were looking for, Ted, but there’s be an app for that shortly I’m sure! http://www.policespecials.com/forum/index.php?showtopic=116130

  17. 2whls3spds says:

    Uh…they have Ring Locks quite common in the NL. Axa Defender is a excellent example, with the optional plug in chain (my choice) or cable you are fairly secure. Electronic gizmos fail with depressing regularity and are expensive in comparison.

    Even fancy cars with fancy locking and tracking systems get stolen.

    I believe that is an interesting design exercise, but in the real world isn’t going to be of much use.


  18. plh says:

    Bike theft is totally out of control because (1) Bike thieves almost never get caught, and (2) people stand by and watch bikes get stolen and don’t even take out their cells phones & call 911. My bike was stolen by having a cable severed in a place and time where and when I KNOW there were plenty of people around. (I now drag around 5 lbs. of clunky but reasonably secure anti-theft devices.)
    Are any bike advocacy organizations trying to put pressure on local police departments to take the crime of bike theft seriously? Citizens are having their property stolen willy-nilly and the police don’t give a good crap. There’s this cops vs. bike riders mentality.
    What about public service announcements and adds saying look people, bike riders are not in the habit of cutting through their own bike locks or disassembling their own locked-up bikes so people whip out that cell phone and dial 911? If for some reason I had to break the lock on my own bike I’d feel a lot better if I had to explain and prove to a cop that it was my bike than if everybody just watched and said or did nothing.

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