E-Lockers Can Help Curb Bike Theft at Metro Stations

A very sad moment  for many cyclists: finding one's locked bike has been stolen. Photos by Jonathan Weiss
A very sad moment for many cyclists: finding one's locked bike has been stolen. Photos by Jonathan Weiss

In January, when my bicycle was stolen from my local Expo station, I realized that the first mile/last mile part of my commute would no longer be a five-minute bike ride. Instead, it would be a fifteen-minute walk. Since it’s hit or miss whether my bike will be there when I return, I nearly always take the extra ten minutes and walk. Occasionally, I’ll take the bike with me on the train.

But my son is a college student – one who didn’t bug his parents for a driver’s license because the Streetsblog mantra has been ingrained in him since he was in diapers. For him, adding ten minutes (each way) to an already hour-long, two-train commute really registers. And stowing the bike on a crowded train and moving it between trains through a crowded station? Not a great option.

Tempting fate, I suggested my son bike to the station on a less desirable bike. Then, three weeks into the fall semester, it was stolen from the station. (Fate won as usual. And who was I to measure bike desire?)

Expo Line bike thieves cut through this sturdy U-lock
Expo Line bike thieves cut through this sturdy U-lock

I’m guessing that theft from train station racks is worse than other places. Unlike at a local market, for example, a bike at a train station is a sitting duck. Thieves know you’re gone for a while. And, for the daily commuter, the truly dedicated thief can clock you and your bike. Hindsight.

So why not use a Metro bike locker? It wasn’t until we had a train running nearby that I realized how unavailable Metro’s bike lockers are. At my local Westwood/Rancho Park station, eight lockers are reserved – whether in use or not – all day, every day, for six months at a time, by eight individuals.  

Here are the locker numbers for my immediate area:

  • 8 leased lockers at Palms with 76 wait-listed;
  • 8 leased lockers at Westwood/Rancho Park with 52 wait-listed;
  • 16 leased lockers at Expo Sepulveda with 55 wait-listed.

That’s 32 winners and 183 losers. And these are just the “losers” who bothered to get on the waiting list.

Metro’s bike lockers are like private garages for bikes. People essentially lease them for $24 for six months. And they can use the lockers as much – or as little – as they want. The $50 key deposit aside, that’s half the price of a good lock. (I now know lock pricing and ratings very well.) During that lease, each of those eight lockers is off the market for the night shift janitor who could be sharing it with the day shift nanny. And (guessing here) the leased lockers are more likely going to locals (predominantly homeowners around here) than to day trippers who want to leave their bike and hop a bus – say, to UCLA.

What to do?  More enforcement?  That might help. Cameras actually pointing at the bikes?  Maybe good, too. But, as the desk officer told me when I filed a police report, arresting bike thieves is like whack-a-mole: someone will fill his spot.

So I returned to the idea that Streetsblog S.F. Editor Roger Rudick shared with me after the first theft: e-lockers (sometimes spelled eLockers.) Across California and beyond, from big systems (BART) to small (UCLA) e-lockers work.  

E-lockers have to be turned over – no days-long rentals, or the user is blocked. According to e-locker vendor Bikelink, “Usage data indicates BikeLink serves five to seven times as many cyclists in a year compared to non-shared systems.” That sounds more equitable to me: five to seven times more the winners! (Yes, I know I’m not counting the current lessees who are out on the market, but that’s a rounding error.)  

Will e-lockers cut theft, encourage first/last mile options, make room for more people on the trains (when we don’t have to bring a bike with us for fear of losing it), increase locker revenue, free police from having to take my semi-regular theft reports?  These are all good questions I’m not qualified to answer.

But I can confidently say this: the status quo is not working – except maybe for eight people in Rancho Park.  

A note about myself. I’m admittedly privileged. Among other things, I choose to ride – I don’t have to. And I can replace my bikes when they’re stolen without flinching (too much). Plus, a local realtor friend gave us a bike (one of the fleet they use as advertising/promotion), so the bike-to-train commute is solved for my son – yet another privilege.

Jonathan Weiss practices law, lives in Cheviot Hills, and served as an appointed representative to the L.A. City Bicycle Advisory Committee between 2009 and 2016. He is also a boardmember of Streetsblog L.A.’s parent nonprofit, the California Streets Initiative.

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