Monday, September 17, 2012

Look out for Sucker Poles!

If you ride your bike in Chicago, eventually you will have to lock it to something outside. Even cyclists with an empty garage and a place next to their desk at work need to stop and buy milk or something on the way home sooner or later

photo from Brompton website
1996 T5 Mk 2
A brief look at the Chicago Stolen Bike Registry quickly tells you the most important factor to prevent bike theft: actually lock it to something. Most of the bikes stolen seem not to have been locked to anything. They were left unlocked for just a minute, or they were in locked garages or backyards or bike rooms or porches and considered safe. So even if you won't be a minute or your bike is in a locked space, lock it to something too. (This happened to us once when a house one of our bikes was in got broken into - keep your eyes open for a red and black Brompton Mk-2 T-5 with a 5-speed Sturmey Archer hub?  :-)

The second most important thing seems to be: Don't use a cable lock. Bikes locked with cables are more often stolen than others. We've been over locks in another post, with recommendations for locks we like. We don't like combination locks either but maybe you do.

So where can you lock your bike safely? 
Wooden railings and trees are no-nos of course, and metal fencing is easy to cut (wire fence) or smash (cast iron), so of course you wouldn't use those. This generally includes the little fences around trees and planters downtown too. The giant-staple-like loops that the City puts on the sidewalk are supposedly pretty good (though we know of one that pops up off its base - was it on Randolph Street near the El?). Even they are not infallible. We use them a lot.

If a city bike rack is unavailable or full, you often need to lock to a city pole.

Sucker and Other Poles:
even this isn't very safe though...

If the pole isn't secured to its base, you've found a Sucker Pole like the one at the top of this post. Look! Someone could just twist it, lift it up and throw it on the curbside. If you park your bike to it, kiss your wheels goodbye before you go. Don't be a sucker! Here's what it is supposed to look like --->

But just since it's not a loose, removable Sucker Pole doesn't mean it's perfectly safe. A sign post, like this one that's bolted down, might be OK in a pinch, but all the thief has to do is cut or unscrew that bolt, lift the pole, and throw your bike into the van, so maybe you'd be happier with something a little more substantial.

A Substantial Thing to lock to:

This one is a good choice.
We like big thick steel (or sometimes aluminum) streetlight posts that nobody could lift without a crane, preferably ones with high voltage cables running inside them. This one is an example from downtown that needs at least a 39 inch / 1 meter chain. Of course, with all that voltage inside you should be careful that your bike or chain doesn't touch it - often the little access door is broken open and your pedal or kickstand could touch the wires inside. Bzzzt! Look first. Pretty much everything bikes are made of conducts electricity, even carbon fiber. So do you, but badly.

Once the first bike is secured, we'll often bend the rules and lock any other bikes we have onto the first bike's chain and frame. Generally we'll also use a second lock on everything if we can. We try to use the side near the street so we don't block pedestrians.

Old Parking Meters (left as a convenience to cyclists) 
These old meters, left from the good old pre-Daley-parking-meter-fiasco days of 25-cent-an-hour parking, are as good as they ever were to lock to. Unfortunately, you have to have a U-lock that is narrow so it cannot under any circumstances be lifted over the head of the meter, yet wide enough to fit over your frame and wheel. Tricky. Chains and so on just lift right over. And these meters are usually near a streetlight anyway. And sometimes, they're Sucker Meters; check if they wiggle or twist. We don't use them.

CTA and other bus and train services are not as bike-parking-friendly as you'd think:
Never lock to a CTA pole!
Here, we'd use the green one behind it.
Don't ever lock to a pole with a CTA sign on it, or anywhere that might block CTA users getting on or off buses or into El stations, or the CTA will take your bike and impound it and you'll likely never find it again. If this happens you can try talking to the people at the station or end-of-the-line station for that bus stop, best done in person. If that doesn't work try following the information in this CTA webpage, calling the CTA at 1-888-YOUR-CTA, or contacting their feedback at  The Chicago Transit Authority has a lot of bike-unfriendly policies, some of which seem unnecessary. Check out the webpage link above. I'm not sure about locking onto the thick steel El support girders - we've never had a problem, but that isn't saying much.

I think Metra and other transit services in the Chicago area have similar policies, so I don't lock onto their stuff either. RTA has a summary page but it doesn't get into locking up your bike. Be careful using the CTA bus bike carriers, too - someone got run over unloading a bike, so tell the driver first, and sometimes your bike can fall off.

Look at racks before you trust them to keep your bike safe:
Country Rack visits the Big City
This metal rack might be fine out in Smallville, Illinois where bike theft might not be such a big thing, but in Chicago it isn't enough. It's bolted, not welded, and it's light gauge tubing, not hardened and thick. Give it a miss and find a lamppost. Tell the security guard at the building to look into getting the Chicago Department of Transportation, CDOT, to put in city racks nearby. (the link to request a rack is broken as of this writing but you can email here). Or take your drippy muddy bike inside? Lots of racks also can bend your wheels or prevent good locking due to their foolish designs.

More info?

The Stolen Bike Registry and Chainlink have more ideas, including not leaving your bike locked for a long time, overnight, or in a high risk place (like near a Metra or CTA station). Lots of the bikes that are stolen are new or at least look new. Maybe a used one is safer? Who knows what the thief is looking for.

It apparently takes a professional thief something like 30 seconds to steal most bikes, so making yours less appealing and more difficult to cut free may convince the thief to go to the one next to yours instead. Or not. Just do your best.

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