Twenty years ago, riding a bike through New York City – or any other major metropolitan area in the United States, for that matter – was considered a near suicidal act. City streets were the terrain of taxis, delivery trucks and out-of-state drivers, braved only by the intrepid bike messenger, the anti-auto activists and Talking Heads musician David Byrne.
Fast forward to 2014 and – thanks to designated cycling lanes, artfully-designed storage racks and bike share programs – more and more city dwellers are abandoning their gas guzzlers for pedal power when it comes to commuting to work, grocery shopping or just getting around town. While this cycling shift has reduced traffic congestion and eased some of the carbon emissions given off by cars, it has also led to one unsavory side effect: a spike in bike thefts.
With cities like Philadelphia, New York and San Francisco reporting record numbers of bikes stolen every year, it seems that no matter how tough or imposing companies make their lock, a determined thief will find a way to get through it.
Three Chilean engineering students, however, are hoping to cull this trend by creating what they claim is the world’s first “unstealable bike.”
"The three of us have always been bike enthusiasts since kids, we love to use them as transportation or as a simple way to have fun," Juan José Monsalve, who along with Cristóbal Cabello and Andrés Roi designed what they call the Yerka bike, told Fox News Latino.
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"Sadly, Andrés had two of his bikes stolen in a short period of time. A few years ago we took an engineering design class at Adolfo Ibáñez University here in Chile and were asked to solve a problem to an actual commute. Using Andrés’ experience as a starting point we started to throw ideas to the table trying to solve this problem, and finally came up with something very similar to what we have today."
What they have today is a bike that looks almost identical to almost every other commuter bike on the street, except that the bottom tube of the frame consists of two separate sections that can be split in two and wrapped around a pole. The bike is then secured to a pole or tree using the seat post to connect the arms and locked shut with a key.
Monsalve added that the company is working on prototypes that work with combination locks and through a smartphone via Bluetooth. They are also designing prototypes with a step-through frame and a bike with gears.
The Yerka Project’s original design idea took some trial and error before they came up with their current model and the Chilean students first experimented with a PVC model of the bike before moving on to a model that could actually be ridden around the Chilean capital of Santiago.
"We first had like three different ideas in mind, but quickly discarded them as they would fall to the ground no matter where you parked them," Monsalve said. "The first prototype we made was in PVC and it was just to show the teacher how the mechanism would work, but very few people could understand it, so about a year later we built our first rideable bike so anyone could understand how it works."
Even before going on sale, the Yerka bike has already drawn criticism for its claim that it’s the world’s first unstealable bike, with detractors saying that any lock can be picked and even if the bike can’t be stolen it can easily be destroyed.
"Remember how people used to open those ubiquitous cylinder locks with a Bic pen? Any lock can be picked and the bike stolen," Lloyd Alter, the managing editor at the website TreeHugger wrote. "Over at BikeRumor, the one bike site that I have seen cover this, a commentator noted that one good kick on that seat post and it will be dented, making the bike unrideable for the owner as well."
Some have also pointed out that sometimes thieves are just as happy to make away with a bike's handlebars or a front wheel, forcing some cyclists to use another cable lock through both wheels.
Monsalve acknowledged the critics and said that the company would soon be releasing a video to explain all the questions people have about their “unstealable” claim, but that for now the denunciations only prove that they are doing something right.
“If we weren’t doing something as disruptive as this, or something that people aren’t interested in, we wouldn’t receive any critics, and believe me when I say we’ve had lots of them mainly referring to the same ‘what if I cut the seat post’ question,'" he said. "We try to learn and improve our project with every critic, and we are soon to release a video in which we probably answer those kind of questions."
The Yerka bike, which will retail for between $400 and $1,000 when it finally hits the market, may not fit in everyone’s price range but Monsalve says that its internal lock and the difficulty in stealing it are worth the price … especially if one has to buy a new bike every couple months because the old one is stolen.
"We think the Yerka bike will fit into this price range, incorporating its own lock into the frame which is an advantage to all the competition," he said.
While the three Chilean students say they want to secure a patent for their product before they begin selling the Yerka bike, they hope to have the first batch of bikes ready for sale sometime in the early months of 2015 and will be using a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to produce it.
The students don’t just plan to keep their secret cycling formula for their own company, but instead license out their design to other bike companies.
“The plan is to license the patent to different brands interested in incorporating this technology to their urban models,” Monsalve said. “We hope this process of licensing takes place soon so we can see Yerka bikes being ridden hopefully worldwide.
Follow Andrew O'Reilly on Twitter @aoreilly84.