If you want to keep your bike, you need to learn how to lock your bike. In this post we look at how people lock their bikes on campus and how not to lock your bike. Click here to read our post on how to lock your bike, complete with pictures!

I mentioned in my previous article on bike theft that the next article to be posted would be on locks. The reasons for this are probably pretty transparent. Bike locks are the key (Ba dum chaa! Get it? Get it?) to lowering the likelihood that your bike will be stolen. It’s a fact that no matter the lock, someone with the resources and the time can break into it; however, the better the lock, the more time and effort it will take to break into and the less likely a thief will be to risk the time and noise required. Locks, then, are not so much about securing your bike so much as they are about making it look like a less appealing target. The main message of this piece is the following: All bike locks are not created equal, nor are all ways of securing your bike to a fixed object. If you are in the market for a new bike then visit our shop. We have great bikes for great prices.

This piece will be organized in three main parts: (1) and overview of bike lock types, (2) examples of how not to lock your bike gathered from the UIUC campus, and (3) a statistical examination of how people lock their bikes on campus. (As you can see, we at Neutral Cycle really like statistics.)

There are two major types of bike locks that are used here on campus: cable and U-locks.

Cable locks are flexible strands of metal, plastic, and rubber that are strung through your bike and around some sort of (hopefully) unmovable object. They have a number of advantages: (1) they’re relatively inexpensive, (2) they’re relatively light, (3) they allow for more flexible attachment, and (4) they are easy to carry on your bike. Despite this, they are extremely easy to remove. All one needs is some sort of cutting implement (which could be as basic and available as a pair of garden shears) and the bike can be gone in ten seconds.

U-locks are solid u-shaped bars of metal that attach together, locking in place part of a bike and some other object. While somewhat heavier and more cumbersome than cable locks, U-locks significantly minimize the chance that someone will be able to remove your lock. In an interview about bike theft, Capt. Roy Acree of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign PD noted that those bikes that are stolen tend to use cable locks (or not be locked at all). The disadvantages of U-locks are a result of their advantages. While you have less freedom for how you will attach it to your bike, potential thieves also have less space to work with when breaking the lock. Additionally, its weight is a side-effect of the strong, solid metal construction. To break into these, you really need an electric cutting implement.

Additional types of locks are chains, which are similar to cable locks, except in the case of the high-quality heat-treated locks. There are loads of other innovative locking methods out there, beyond these two major categories, too. For a look into how easy it is to break into a bike lock, check out this review and test of various types.

The bottom line is this: Your first line of protection against bike theft should be using a good lock and using that lock properly. Neutral Cycle has U-locks available starting at $26. If you have a cable lock, come by our Campustown location at Green and 5th and get something that will effectively lock your bike.

Taking inspiration from this video, made by a NYC bike mechanic rating people’s method of locking bikes, we will do the same to bikes I’ve seen and photographed around campus. By looking at others’ failures, it is hoped that you will be more aware of how and how not to lock up your own bike. Ratings are based on (a) what type of lock is used and (b) how much of your bike is secured and how secure the object that it’s attached to is.

Exhibit A:


This bike uses a solid U-lock, but there’s a problem.  The U-lock isn’t connected to the bike at all.  It’s just sitting on top of the brakes.  F

Exhibit B:


Again, good use of a U-lock, but with the quick-release wheel, you could be left with only that wheel with very minimal effort on the part of a thief.  It may look like it’s connected to the frame, but it’s just sitting between the two blades of the fork. D

Exhibit C:


Look closely.  Is the cable lock actually connected to anything?  No.  No, it is not.  This cable lock isn’t being used like lock at all; it seems to instead be functioning more like a necklace for this bike.  F

Exhibit D:

(Photo courtesy of our dear friend Tiim Chao.)

This biker uses a U-lock.  Good!  Too bad anyone with a hand could take the seat off with the quick-release mechanism and ride away with an intact bike. F

Exhibit E:


This bike could be stolen with (a) a cutting implement to remove the flimsy cable lock or (b) a wrench to unscrew the front tire, freeing the rest of the bike. D

Remember, if you lock up your bike, you should use a good lock (U-lock or otherwise) and attach, at least, the frame of the bike to a fixed object.  Ideally you should also attach at least one wheel.  If you want to be extra careful, you can get an additional cable lock or another U-lock to attach the other wheel.  If you improperly lock your bike, but the whole thing is not stolen, you could end up with this:


Or this:


And now, on to the numbers!

Given our love of stats, Neutral Cycle wanted to get an idea of what locks people were using and how they were locking their bikes on campus.  To do this, I surveyed two sets of bike parking racks on campus: one on the southeast side of the Illini Union and another on the southwest side of Altgeld (Labeled ‘Quad’) and two located to the south of ISR (Labeled ‘Dorm’).  For the purposes of these stats, bikes locked with flimsy chains were included under ‘Cable’, and bikes locked with both a U-lock and a cable were included under ‘U-lock’ provided the U-lock itself was connected to a rack (otherwise it’s no more worthwhile than a cable, really).  In total, I surveyed 298 bikes – 151 on the Quad and 147 at ISR.



So the numbers reveal that about half of the campus uses U-locks, while the other half uses cable locks.  At ISR, students were less likely to use U-locks as compared with students on the Quad.  (I don’t know if this is significant; if anyone wants to bother checking, feel free!)  The most striking difference between the two locations was that students at ISR were much more likely (13% vs. 7%) to lock just their wheels to the bike rack.  Doing this leaves your bike much more susceptible to theft because a thief could either unscrew it or, in the case of quick-release skewers, merely flip a lever and get the rest of your bike.  Overall, it’s clear that perhaps the majority of bikes on campus can be easily removed with either the help of bolt cutters or a wrench in less than a minute.

I looked at both locations because I had a suspicion – which was confirmed by the data – that bikes were particularly poorly locked at dorms.  I think the reason for this is that people parking their bikes on the quad tend to actually use their bikes – I mean, they had to ride their bike to the quad, at least.  They care about their bikes not getting stolen and are more knowledgeable about what locks to use and how to use them.  Many students at dorms, on the other hand, don’t use their bikes.  Those bikes were carted to UIUC by their parents and left poorly locked to rust in a dorm bike rack.  This may account for the high level of theft at some dormitories, most notably ISR.

Bike theft on campus will continue no matter what and so long as people lock their bikes poorly, there’s little reason for it to decline.  That said, loads of bikes are out there, totally unlocked, merely propped up (or not) against a wall or a bike rack.  In fact, one has been outside our store for the past week and a half like this and has yet to be stolen.  This indicates that, although bike theft is a serious issue and although you should always take precautions to lock up your bike, it’s not that bad of a problem and certainly comes nowhere close to the level that you see in cities like NYC, San Francisco, or Chicago.

What are your secrets to locking bikes?  If you can, show us a picture of your set-up!   (Feel free to also share pictures of hilariously bad locking jobs!)

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