John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
The city’s bike bandits like attacking racks—but this one fights back.
Unless you encase your bike in concrete and chip it out whenever you need to use it, there’s no way to 100-percent guard your cycle against theft.
But there are steps you can take to make it harder to steal. And Portland recently made an unusual but encouraging one by rolling out cleverly designed bike racks meant to repel all but the most determined thieves.
In most cases, bike bandits go for the lock—snipping ineffective cable locks with garden shears or bolt cutters and disabling U-locks with pry bars, modified car jacks, and battery-powered angle grinders. But Portland has lately attracted a determined contingent of thieves that attack sturdy racks, creating headaches for both bikeless victims and the city for bearing the cost of rack replacements.
“There were a number of bike thefts where the bike rack itself was cut to remove the lock and bike,” says Hannah Schafer, a communications specialist at the Portland Bureau of Transportation. “We wanted to ensure that we were doing all we could to protect bikes and encourage people to ride without worrying about their bikes’ safety. The added security features are worth the marginal extra cost.”
The new racks look fairly normal. They’re blue, tubular arches with flat bars running along the bottom. (See a schematic here.) What’s not obvious is that inside the tubes are hidden cables that provide a secondary layer of security against rack-sawing fiends. “There is a free-floating, steel-wire cable routed through the hollow steel piping of the rack,” says Schafer. “This makes it difficult to cut through, because the wire moves when the blade attempts to get purchase.”
The bar on the bottom, mounted about 10 inches above the pavement, provides more defense. “The bar prevents a potential thief from unscrewing the bolts and slipping a U-lock off the bottom of the rack,” she says. “In addition, if a potential thief were to cut through the bike rack and wire rope, the bar makes it difficult to pry the rack apart and slip a U-lock off.”
The bar also serves as “cane detection so visually impaired people can’t just walk into the bike rack,” says Gary Hansen, owner of Oregon’s Radius Pipe Bending, the company manufacturing the racks. Right now, he adds, Portland is the only city in the U.S. testing out this variety of cable-loaded rack.
Portland so far has installed fewer than 100 racks, which cost about $5 more than the old versions. But as the city’s 7,000 racks fall victim to disrepair, accidents, and metal-cutting crooks, locals will see more and more of the new armatures popping up on streets and sidewalks. “We plan to only use this design for all future installations or replacement of damaged racks,” says Schafer.