the solution to bicycle theft in Hawaii

the solution

I've spent a good number of hours thinking about the problem of bicycle theft. I even built an online bicycle registration service. I've met with people dealing with this issue in the bay area, and the creators of and After a lot of thought I ended up shutting down my bicycle registry service because I came to understand both how simple the problem is to solve, and how difficult.

"Simple" is not the same as "easy".

Here is what needs to happen to actually make a difference in bicycle theft:

Whenever a person is buying a bicycle, they must first check the serial number against a database of stolen bicycles. If it's stolen, don't buy it.

This is theoretically simple, but a moments contemplation will quickly reveal why this is not easy. It will take a lot of effort to educate all bicycle buyers to do this. The easy part is to create a database that is easily searchable, that everybody can use to register their bike, either before or after it's stolen. There are existing options, but my current favorite choice for that is More important than which registration service in particular to use is that one is selected, and that it is easy to use both by the public and law enforcement officers.

The real problem of bicycle theft is that bicycles are in the sweet spot of being easy to steal and easy to sell, with little risk. Some bicycles might be stolen for other reasons, but the purpose of the vast majority of bicycle thefts is to generate cash. 

The best, most effective way to directly combat bicycle theft is to stop buying stolen bicycles.

There are many technical "solutions" (GPS trackers, alarms/detectors + notifiers, crowd-based data gathering with bluetooth) but all of these are expensive and easily defeated, especially if deployed massively. (If every bicycle has a GPS tracker, bicycle thieves will very quickly learn to disable it ASAP.) These technical approaches may help individuals combat bike theft for their own bikes, but will not succeed for all bicycles, and will not make a serious dent in the general problem of bicycle theft.

The current "standard" solution is to have a registration service, oftentimes only accessible to law enforcement, and to rely on police to check the registration status of bicycles. The actual only case where this accomplishes anything is when police confiscate a bunch of obviously stolen bicycles and use the data to return the bicycles.

Bicycle recovery is not the same thing as deterring bicycle theft.

This current standard approach of bicycle registration is useless in deterring theft. It does nothing to dissuade thieves from stealing. It does not increase their risk of being caught. Bicycle registries that are not accessible to the public are worthless in terms of deterring bicycle theft.

what about Hawaii?

Here in Hawaii, we have some factors in our favor:

  1. Stolen bicycles do not cross state lines
  2. Smaller population
  3. Kuleana

Since bikes do not cross state lines, we can implement a solution state-wide, and it cannot be defeated by taking bikes to the next state. Seriously, this is a problem in the mainland.

Having a smaller population, we will have an easier time educating the public. I'm not an expert on public relations, but I expect it boils down to money vs time. The more money we throw at the issue, the faster it gets done. If we don't have a lot of money, it will take longer. But, I believe it is completely possible and doable. I'm imagining a time-line of 1 to 5 years.

We have the concept of kuleana, being responsible individually in order that all of us collectively can have a better life. This is exactly the understanding that is required to get people to do this. Individually, people are better off not checking if a bike is stolen because they can "get a deal" and it's certainly less hassle. But by all of us working together (checking before buying) we can ensure that our own bicycles are less likely to be stolen. The best defense against my bike being stolen is that the potential buyer will not buy it.

Given these factors, and the already available technology (e.g. and a little bit of will, I truly believe that Hawaii can quickly become a model of how to stop bicycle theft for the rest of the U.S. It's totally possible.

Final note: I've been wrong before, and I've learned. I've been talking about this approach for a while, and so far I've heard no serious counter arguments, or better proposals. The only reaction I've observed is people changing the subject. I suspect that people believe this approach is too hard to get done, and would rather talk about other "technical" solutions. If there is some problem with this proposal other than "it's too hard", or something that is easier/more effective, I'd love to hear it.

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the bicycle security solution

A very common problem facing cyclists is "How do I keep my bike from being stolen?" The standard answer is "Buy a really, really good lock. And then another one for the front wheel." It's not enough to lock your frame, or your frame and one wheel, because the other wheel will get stolen.

The problem is that there is no such thing as an invincible bicycle lock. If one lock can be defeated, then two can. If your lock is tougher than the bike rack it's locked to, the rack (or fence, or whatever) can be defeated.

What other solutions are there?

  1. Make your bike not worth stealing.
  2. Make sure your bicycle will be recovered, if stolen.

There are many ways to do #1, including uglifying, but the best I've seen is to make the lock integral to the bicycle. If the lock is defeated, the bicycle is broken. The best example of this is the Denny urban bicycle. Its lock is the handlebars. The problem in this case is that the handlebar is replaceable. I also saw an example where the lock was the frame itself. The top tube had a hinge and a lock.

For #2, the right solution, I believe, is to make sure that every person buying a bicycle checks the serial number via, but it's hard to get everybody to do something that is inconvenient, even if it is to their own benefit in the long run. Another thing going on these days is the bluetooth tag tracking systems. Examples include TheTileApp and Trackr.

The biggest hole in the bluetooth tracking solution is it requires massive buy-in. It requires many people running the app in their phones so that the chances of your tracker being found is higher. Clearly this market will see either some kind of cooperation between vendors, or a last-man-standing end game, where whoever has the bigger network wins. In any case, it looks like this is going to fly. We just don't know yet who is going to be around in 5 years. I believe this hole is closing, it's just a matter of time.

Another problem is robustness and battery life. These tracker things are not primarily designed to be attached to things that get dirty and wet and live outside most of the time. Both have a 1 year battery life. I'm afraid they're not going to be reliable enough for long term bicycle protection. By the time your bicycle is stolen, the thing may be dead, either by the battery running out, or abuse, or it may have fallen off and you never noticed. 

Also, they can easily be removed from a bicycle. Once thieves catch on that these things are around, they can quickly check over the bike, find, and remove any tracking devices attaches with a sticker, or other creative attachment methods. 

Let's step back to #2, for a minute.

I'm a big, big fan of locking skewers. The two I know of are pinhead locks and pit lock. My theory is that if a bicycle with locking skewers is stolen, the end buyer will realize that the bicycle is stolen when they get their first flat, or need to do any maintenance. When they discover they can't get the wheels off, that little lightbulb in their head will go off notifying them that they're a victim of fraud. I'm always in favor of locking skewers and recommend it as part of any bicycle security solution, but today I want draw attention to pinhead's headset lock (pitlock also has a headset lock).

At first being able to lock your headset may seem like a pretty minor worry, on scale with being able to lock your saddle, and certainly not going to prevent your bicycle from being stolen. But consider being able to lock your headset in conjunction with these headset spacer headlights:

  1. Sparse Bicycle Lights
  2. Fortified: Bike Lights
  3. Blink / Steady

What these have in common is that these can be secured to a bicycle with pinhead's headset lock.

Here is the solution to the bicycle security problem:

Bluetooth tracker + headset spacer headlight + headset lock
  1. The bluetooth tracker needs to be integrated into a headlight that is built for living on a bicycle. 
  2. The user needs to notice if/when the device stops working (either from battery issue, or any other issue).
  3. The device should be designed so that the only way to deactivate it or remove it (other than properly) will render it ugly and obviously tampered.

I hope that this happens. Here's what I'd really like to see:

  1. Multiple vendors selling headset spacer lights with integrated bluetooth tracking
  2. Cooperation between the sellers of these devices, and with all other bluetooth tracker devices
  3. More options in headset locks

It's conceivable that having a bluetooth trackable device securely, and obviously, attached to your bicycle would be more of a theft deterrent than the best bicycle lock money could buy. 

how to lock up a bicycle

I recently wrote about the one true bike lock, but I didn't explain how to use it. Here is the post about how to use that lock.


  1. Use locking skewers for your wheels, and 
  2. use your U lock around the rear wheel, inside the rear triangle

Where to put your U lock

where to put your U lock

the U lock position

This method of locking a bicycle with a U lock around the rear wheel is known as The Sheldon Brown Lock Strategy. It's a little bit counter-intuitive. When you first hear/read this, it seems like a thief would be able to just detach the rear wheel and walk away with the bike. But the reality is that the thief would have to pull the rear triangle over the wheel, which is impossible without either destroying the wheel or wrecking the bicycle frame. Compare the diameter of the wheel to the size of the rear triangle, and you'll see it.

This position has the double advantage of securing the rear wheel and the frame while allowing use of the smallest U lock.

It is true that it is far, far easier to saw thru the rear wheel than to saw thru either the U lock or the frame. The fact is, though, that the rear wheel is generally the most valuable piece of the bike, after the frame. To destroy the rear wheel in order to steal the bike is very nearly a waste of time and effort. Thieves don't do it. If this changes, if thieves do start cutting wheels in order to steal what's left, then we'll revise this advice. Until then, this lock position is widely recognized as the best way to use a U lock.

locking skewers

I assert that locking skewers are a far better thing than a cable, or even a second U lock.

Commonly, people use a cable, attached to the U lock, to secure the front wheel. Or even, they may use a second U lock to secure the front wheel. I say that you're more likely to have a bicycle stolen (or stolen and never recovered) with either of those than if you use locking skewers.

In order to understand this, you have to realize that the purpose of all these things we do to "lock" our bike are really just deterrents. Mostly people want to buy locks to be 100% sure that the bike will not be stolen. They are looking to make the bike theft-proof, and it seems that, for instance, a second U lock on the front wheel will stop a thief stealing the bike better than having a locking skewer. That is to say, most people think that making the bike harder to steal is the one and only goal.

The major flaw in this reasoning is that once you've got one quality U lock on your bike, adding a second U lock only makes your bike twice as hard to steal. If your bike is being stolen by someone who can defeat one U lock, don't you think they can defeat two? If it takes them 10 minutes to get thru one, it'll probably take 20 minutes to get thru two.

The reason that people use a second U lock is that a cable is ridiculously easy to defeat. Putting a cable around the front wheel is definitely more secure than a quick-release skewer (the standard attachment method), but that's not really saying much. A cable is pretty much a token effort to not lose a front wheel.

Let's take a step back. The reality is that bikes are generally stolen so that they can be sold. There is an entire branch of bicycle security devoted to uglifying your bicycle in order to deter theft. By making a bicycle hard to sell, you deter thieves from stealing it in the first place. 

The beauty of locking skewers boils down to this: locking skewers

  1. are better than a cable in preventing wheels being removed from a bike,
  2. are lighter and less hassle than a second U lock or a cable for locking up,
  3. communicate to purchasers of the bicycle that perhaps it is stolen (when the thief cannot produce the key),
  4. and deter theft because of #3.

Locking skewers provide a completely separate vector of theft deterrence than just anther external lock. Once a thief has defeated both of your U locks, which he can do if he can defeat one, there is no clue that the bike was stolen. With locking skewers, when the thief attempts to sell the bike, he will be asked for the key. A bike with locking skewers is harder to sell than one without. A bike that is harder to sell is one less likely to be stolen. Assuming a thief does steal the bike and the buyer fails to notice the locking skewers during the sale, they will eventually understand that there was something "off" about the deal they got when they learn they don't have the key. Hopefully this will inspire them to seek out the original owner (you) and return the bike.

the one true bike lock

The one, the best, the u-lock that I most highly recommend is the Abus Granit Futura 64, aka U-Lock 64/120HB150.

abus granit futura u lock

It’s small, it’s light, it’s extra hardened. It’s rated by the manufacturer as more secure that some of their other (heavier) u-locks.

Advantages/features of this lock:

  • small & light
  • locks both sides of the U rather than just one end
  • keyhole covered, keeps out crud
  • stronger/harder steel than other, heavier locks


  • no good bicycle mounting option
  • sometimes too small
  • not as secure as top-end u-locks
  • more expensive than less-good locks

Here are the trade-offs between smaller and bigger u-locks:

smaller               bigger
lighter               heavier
less convenient       more convenient
more secure           less secure

When locking with a u-lock, you want a snug lock-up. Longer u-locks may be more convenient, but they’re much easier to break with a leverage attack (pipe thru the lock, twisting). The Futura 64 sometimes is too narrow to fit around some thicker objects like parking meters, but I’ve never been in a situation where I couldn’t find something to lock to.

I would call this a “high-end” lock, but it’s not tip-top. If you live in a seriously theft-prone area, maybe you need a Kryptonite New York Fahgettaboudit Mini Lock. (I don’t know if there is anything else as burly as that.) But for the vast majority of cyclists, the Fahgettaboudit is overkill. To my mind, the Granit Futura 64 is the sweet spot in terms of security per dollar, and security per pound.

second choice

My second choice option is the Kryptonite Evolution Mini 5. This is very similarly sized to the Abus, above, but is a little wider, increasing lockup options. The Mini 5 lock does have a very good bicycle mounting system included. The downsides are that the Kryptonite is heavier than the Abus, and locks on one side of the U with a bent foot on the other side. Theoretically, this makes it less secure than the Abus.

I don't really have any way to judge which of these has the stronger steel, but from what I've read online, it sounds like the Abus has better quality steel. Will it make any real difference? I don't know.

other options

Really, the difference between these higher quality u locks is probably not really significant to make a difference in your bike being stolen. There are other similar options from other brands which are probably just as good, for about the same price.

The important thing is to not buy a cheap u lock. Every brand has a range of u locks available (including Abus and Kryptonite). Deciding which u lock to buy based on brand is the biggest, easiest mistake to make. You really need to be looking for the most secure lock you can stand to take with you (having a smaller lock helps on this), and that you can afford. Buying a $25 u lock is probably a waste of money.

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