Theft Risk

I’m often asked: “Do you worry about your e-bike getting stolen?” The answer is “not much”; this summarizes some of why this is a concern and what I do to mitigate it.

Bike theft is annoyingly common, especially in urban areas. In Cambridge in 2021, there were a total of 623 reported bike thefts, and the trend of thefts increased starting with the pandemic in 2020. A lock alone is not sufficient to deter thieves: 78% of thefts are of locked bikes. Theft of bicycles is the single most commonly reported property crime in Cambridge. With this in mind, I make a few particular choices about how I use my bike that are designed to minimize risk of theft. All of this advice is from someone who lived in a relatively high-theft neighborhood of Cambridge, but had off-street storage at home and work.

  • For long term storage, ensure the bike is not immediately visible to a casual observer. This means that at home, you will want someplace that is not visible from the street. Bikes that are visible to casual passerby are most at risk of theft. If you must lock your bike in a place which is visible from the street, get some kind of covering to hide the fact that it’s a bike. I think this is the most important thing to discourage casual theft. (It also makes owning an e-bike, which is often heavier and difficult to store indoors, much more difficult for apartment dwellers.)
  • Where possible, use a bike room or other enclosed area with other bikes. Cambridge has a requirement for new buildings to have long-term parking available, so your office may have access to this; if you’re locking up at MBTA stations, look for Pedal and Park facilities, which require registered MBTA transit pass access. When storing in shared spaces like this, ensure that you still lock your bike: even if you trust your coworkers, thieves will sometimes cut open cages and wheel out any unlocked bikes en masse, so leaving your bike unlocked is a risk both to you and to others in the same space.
  • Where you need to lock up elsewhere, aim for places with high visibility. This is the opposite of the advice for long term storage: you want to have “eyes on the street” watching your bike. Sure, some thieves are brazen enough to steal in broad daylight, but for short durations, better to have others around to discourage anti-social behavior.
  • Buy a decent lock. Don’t worry about whether the lock is pickable; your risk is people using leverage to pop the lock or bolt cutters. Do not use an inexpensive cable lock. These can often just be yanked open entirely. Most U-Locks are probably good, but older/cheaper Kryptonite locks may have some ability to be levered open. I personally use a New York Long Shackle, though I will say that this lock is heavy; it works best if you can toss it in a pannier, because mounting it securely is difficult. A 13mm shackle, like the Kryptonite Evolution, is lighter, and would likely take more than a few minutes with a 4’ bolt cutter, which is likely enough deterrant for the casual theft. (After all, you don’t have to be the most protected, you just have to be more protected than the next most interesting bike.)
  • Make sure you lock through the frame. This can be a bit tricky with step-through bikes, but you really want to do this. (Especially make sure you don’t lock just through a front wheel; even non-quick release wheels take only a few seconds to remove!) While some folks are sure to lock through the frame and the wheel (and this can probably be especially valuable for bikes with rear motors), I don’t personally worry about this.
  • Your battery is probably the most expensive single part of your bike. Removing the battery for any long-term storage (> 1 day) may reduce the extent to which your bike looks like an e-bike at first glance, and will also provide a deterrent. (an e-bike with no “E” isn’t all that good on the resale market!) It also avoids the potential of battery theft; in the Netherlands in 2022, about 1 in every 1000 e-bikes had a battery stolen.

With all this said: While bike theft is common, the experience of having a bike stolen is far from universal. Only one in 200 people in Cambridge had a bike stolen in 2021; even among bike-owners, the chance of having a bike stolen in any given year is far less than the risk of catching the flu, and about on par with the risk of getting audited by the IRS.

With these things in mind, I mostly don’t worry about theft. I have locked my bike at Pedal and Park for up to 4 days; I have left my bike overnight at a grocery store in the past; I have locked it up while running errands around Boston dozens of times. I would not worry about parking a bike in a visible/well-lit area while watching a movie; I have locked my bike up outside while I spend hours at a bar.

Your biggest risk is long-term storage, or storage in less visible locations. Ensuring you have a space which is easy for you to access, which is not visible from the street, and where you can securely lock your bike (or, even better, have an indoor locked space) is probably the most important tool to ensuring that your bike remains yours.