Photograph by Kristy Sparow, Getty

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On Valentine's Day, "love locks" line the Pont des Arts in Paris.

Photograph by Kristy Sparow, Getty

Love in the Time of Padlocks: Has a Craze on the World’s Bridges Gone Too Far?

Clipping locks to bridges as love tokens started in Paris and spread. Is it getting out of hand?

In a city where it has known no bounds, love now has a weight limit. Shortly after 5 p.m. on Sunday, June 8, a railing of the Pont des Arts—a pedestrian bridge in Paris that spans the Seine River near the Louvre—buckled under the weight of thousands of padlocks.

The padlocks are a public expression of love. Couples, mainly tourists, buy them from vendors on the bridge, inscribe or write their names (Kevin & Camille ♥ ♥) on them, lock them to the railing, and throw the key into the water.

The recent railing collapse isn't the first. Last February another railing gave way. Officials evacuated the bridge and removed the damaged section, an architect was rushed to the scene to evaluate the integrity of the bridge, and maintenance crews with bolt cutters removed several hundred locks. Less than 24 hours later, the bridge was open for business as usual. Vendors sold postcards, miniature Eiffel Tower reproductions—and more love locks.

The current lock craze is relatively recent and owes much to social media sites like Twitter and Instagram, which helped spread the practice across Europe and eventually around the world, to places as far away as China.

Locks hang from bridges in Brussels and Berlin and on Moscow's Luzhkov Bridge. In most cities, police have few legal options; the only relevant laws are usually those that cite public littering.

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The weight of thousands of locks like these recently buckled the railing of the Pont des Arts.

Unlocking Alternatives

At first, clearing away the locks on the Pont des Arts was as routine as scrubbing pigeon droppings from the glass pyramid at the Louvre. But as the locks proliferated, the task became overwhelming. It didn't help that the bouquinistes who sell the locks sometimes surreptitiously damaged railings so that they'd be replaced more quickly, creating space for new locks.

This spring Paris's new mayor, Anne Hidalgo, carefully and somewhat delicately pronounced the locks a problem. "I find it to be a quite touching gesture," she told the Local, an English language paper published in France. "I understand that couples who pass through want to leave a symbolic mark on a city that meant so much to them. However, a problem arises when there are so many locks that the railings of the bridge begin to bend under their weight. It may be dangerous." Le Monde estimated that the accumulated mass of locks on the Pont des Arts had weighed as much as two semitrailers.

Hidalgo appointed deputy mayor Bruno Julliard to address the problem. Julliard decided that crowd sourcing would do the trick and issued a call to the public for solutions—until news about the recent collapse spread around the world and pushed the issue higher on the agenda. "It's rather urgent," he said. "For reasons of aesthetics and security, we have to find an alternative to these padlocks of love."

The answer, at least in Paris, remains elusive. The mayor's office has expressed concern that a ban on love locks might dampen the city's amorous allure. There's also the economic boost to vendors, who pocket 5 to 10 euros (about $6.75 to $13.50) per lock; some of the locks are quickly removed and resold.

This past January two Americans launched a petition on to build opposition to the practice. "Clearly tourists can't be trusted to act responsibly," says Lisa Taylor Huff, who's campaigning with her friend Lisa Anselmo to rid cities of the unsightly locks. Taylor Huff remembers the Pont des Arts in its pre-love-lock era. "We used to go there to sit and relax, but the last time I went with my husband, he said he felt physically sick," she said, speaking by phone from her Paris apartment.

Several weeks ago, they sent a 44-page dossier to Hidalgo, citing damage done to the city's culture—the bridge is part of a UNESCO World Heritage site—and the threat the locks pose to the river's marine life. (Discarded keys end up on the river bottom and slowly rust until removed by maintenance crews.) The city has not yet responded.

But other cities have solutions. In Moscow, locks on bridges over the Vodootvodny Canal were snipped off, and metal trees that locks could be attached to were put up. When a tree is full, it's replaced, and the old locks melted for scrap. Rome and Venice have banned locks altogether.

Last month New York City's mayor, Bill de Blasio, ordered nearly 6,000 locks removed from the Brooklyn Bridge to prevent potential damage to cars or injury to pedestrians on the walkway below.

In Brooklyn, at least, love will have to find another way.