The Lonely Bike Lock Phenomenon

Six theories on why Berlin is full of abandoned bike locks.
Six theories on why Berlin is full of abandoned bike locks.

Have you ever walked down the street and noticed a locked bike chain hanging from a post? What happened to the bike? How did the bike disappear? I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about this lately, and I’ve come up with six possible theories and corresponding likelihoods:

1. Someone Cut Through the Bike
This is the first theory most people instinctively respond with. But when you think about it, it seems quite unlikely. This means that someone sawed or cut through the structure of the bicycle, thereby damaging the bike, potentially beyond repair. Theoretically you could solder a bike back together, but that seems like a lot of work for a common bike thief. And surely anyone who has the equipment to do all of this work would have a tool capable of simply cutting the lock instead, which would save all the trouble. So I’m going to rank the likelihood of this option as a “maybe.”

2. Someone Cut Through the Wheel
It’s a lot easier to replace a wheel than to cut through and re-solder a bike frame, so maybe this makes more sense. But this theory has a few flaws. First, it is quite unlikely that anyone would cut through the tube and rim of the wheel. That seems like a lot of work, and wouldn’t it cause a loud pop? They could of course cut through the spokes, that’s very easy. But both cases assume that the bike owner was stupid enough to lock their bike only to the wheel, or even stupider, only through the spokes. And again, if anyone can cut metal, they can simply cut the lock. This theory is ranked “unlikely.”

3. The Polite Lockpicker
Perhaps someone came along, jimmied open the lock somehow, and took the bike. But since the lock is still there, this implies that they also closed the lock again. What kind of bike thief would do such a thing? Wouldn’t they also take the lock, which is worth some money? Or just leave it unlocked on the ground – why do extra work? This theory only holds if you think the thief was polite enough to leave the lock for the owner to find upon their return, so the owner could presumably take the lock home with them to use again.
I rank the polite lockpicker theory as “unlikely.”

4. The Organized Cyclist’s Distributed Lock System
I’m going to credit Mr. Joshua Alas of Mobile Kino, for coming up with this creative theory. Bike locks and chains can be heavy and annoying to carry around, especially if you have one of those fancy racing bikes. Maybe there are cyclists out there who prefer to ride unhindered by the weight of a chain. And to avoid this, they distribute locks around the city at locations they frequent. So they might have a lock near their house, one near their workplace, one near their favourite bar and so on. An added bonus is that this also reserves a bike parking place at a prime location. We all know how in summer it can sometimes be hard to find a post to chain your bike to.
This theory fits with what we know about how organized Germans can be, and also about how fastidious those racing bike owners are. Anyone willing to wear shoes with clips and funny pants could be the type to establish their own network of locks around the city.
But let’s pick this theory apart. To start with, fancy bike riders rarely leave their bikes on the street at all. They usually carry them upstairs into their apartment or office. Next, if you leave a lock out, it’s going to rust and become unusable, so you would have to be constantly replacing rusty locks. You can’t have locks everywhere, so you couldn’t just stop at some random shop on your way home if you wanted. There are so many lonely locks on the streets of Berlin, so if this theory is true it means there are huge numbers of people using this distributed lock system, so you would think you would have met someone who does this, or have seen someone taking their bike but leaving their lock.
For these reasons, this theory is ranked as “highly unlikely.”

5. The Intentionally Abandoned Lock
Perhaps someone just gave up on their lock. Either it got old and they didn’t want it anymore, so they just left it out on the street, along with their old mattress, TV and fridge. Or it could be some kind of art project. Or a statement, code for underworld activity we’re not aware of, in the same way that shoes hanging from a cable indicate the proximity of a crack dealer. Maybe it’s a symbol of marriage, like those engraved locks people leave on bridges. Or maybe, it’s the nihilistic act of a saddened bike owner who, upon returning to find their bike stolen, couldn’t even be bothered to use the key in their pocket to unlock the chain and take it home. Why would you, if the lock had proven so ineffective?
Berlin is full of art projects, but if this is one it doesn’t have much artistic merit. It would also be expensive acquiring all those locks, and I haven’t seen a Facebook post by any artists requesting donations of old bike locks for their extremely subtle city-wide installation.
I think Germans are too civic minded to litter their cities with old bike chains. I don’t see any engraved notices of affection, and believe me I’ve studied quite a few of these abandoned locks in the past few weeks. The nihilistic thievery victim is a tragic poetic image, but there’s too many chains out there, and I think Germans are pragmatic enough to take the lock. So that leaves the underworld signal, which I can’t disprove but does seem to be a stretch of the imagination. As are all of these scenarios, so I rate the intentionally abandoned lock theory as “unlikely.”

There’s just one theory left to discuss. This one, unlike all the others, involves no malicious activity, no scheming, no planning. Security experts often say that the weakest link in any system is the human. Which is how I came up with the last theory:

6. The Stoner
Some blissed-out Berliner was trundling along, floating on a cloud of euphoria as they rode into the sunset toward or away from some party. And when they arrived at their destination, still grinning irrationally, they looped their bike chain around their bicycle in such a fashion that it appeared to their livid red eyes to be secured. But in fact, they failed to loop the chain through any enclosed section of their bike frame. Perhaps they just wrapped it around their seat post, or they locked it to the bar but forgot to include their bike. And off they strolled, without looking back, feeling proud of themselves that they’d managed to arrive without getting into an accident for which they have no spare cash to pay for.
Then, some opportunist walking saw a bike resting against a post with a chain draped around it or near it for decoration, and simply took it as you might pick up money on the street.
That means that every time you see a lonely lock, you know a stoner is or has been nearby. So the number of lonely locks in any given area can be considered an indication of the number of stoners. You could imagine a social mapping project where they get volunteers to geolocate lonely locks to create a infographic.
How to rate this theory? Given the propensity of Berliners to enjoy a smoke, or a drink, or a pill, I’m going to rank The Stoner theory of the Lonely Bike Lock Phenomenon as “highly likely.”

If you’ve got a theory that I haven’t thought of, please contribute to this important research project. Or even better, if you’re a victim or perpetrator of a lonely lock situation, we want to hear your personal story. Contact us by emailing to, or posting on our social media walls.

By Joel Dullroy

Written for the April 24 episode of Radio Spaetkauf. Listen here: