It’s not hard for thieves to get away with stealing a bike: Few victims end up reporting the crime and fewer bikes are ever recovered. Even when the police manage to catch a suspect, the original owner often lacks any proof that the bike is theirs. But the biggest reason an estimated 1.5 million bikes are stolen every year in the U.S. might be the fact that locks just don’t work very well.
Maybe the answer is ditching personal locks altogether. A team of engineering students from the University of Pennsylvania has designed a public bike lock that’s built directly into a bike rack and activated by an RFID card. Because a cyclist doesn’t have to lug it around on their bike, the Publock can be unusually heavy and strong enough to actually keep a bike in place.
“Since personal locks need to be carried by riders, all current models suffer from a tradeoff between security and portability,” says Joe Hill, who worked on the design with Alex Neier, Joe Polin, and Justin Starr. “Our product remains fixed to the bicycle racks, so we can and did design for 100 percent security.” The end result is 20 pounds of metal that can resist bolt cutters and keep your bike safe while not slowing down the ride.
It’s also easy to use, unlike the typical lock that someone might struggle to wrap around a rack. “Given the positioning of the fixed components, it is nearly impossible to incorrectly lock a bike,” Hill says. In a given month, the designers found, 43 percent of the bike thefts at Penn happened because riders didn’t use locks correctly.
The students designed the lock for university campuses, where bike theft is one of the most common crimes, but they say that it could work elsewhere–both on large company campuses or in cities as a whole, where cyclists could potentially become members of a new bike-rack system.
It could also help transform bike-share programs, which currently tend to work best only in high-density areas that can support large racks full of bikes. “With a fleet of PubLocks deployed across a city–or even suburbs–bike-share programs could have a few bikes located in each neighborhood to access a larger customer base,” says Polin.
“In any scenario, the utility of PubLock is partially contingent on its ubiquity,” he adds. Obviously, if you can’t count on finding a modified bike rack where you’re going, you’ll still have to carry your own lock along.
For now, the team is still evaluating the market potential of the idea and doesn’t yet have plans to bring it to market. But they believe it may have the potential to be game-changing. “Bicycle locking technology has not progressed much since the invention of the U-Lock,” says Starr.
There’s a clear need for a better answer, especially in cities, where bike thefts have increased along with the number of new cyclists: In San Francisco, for example, the number of stolen bikes jumped up 70 percent over the last five years.