A cycle hangar that uses robots to store bikes safely underground and return them to the surface in seconds could be built in London.

The Eco Cycle system has been used in Japan for more than a decade. Now its backers believe it could offer a solution to the capital’s dire shortage of secure bike parking.

Bikes are loaded onto an automated rack at pavement level before a Matrix-style robotic lift slides them into a buried cylindrical vault. Bikes, which are identified by a barcode on the frame, are retrieved when their owner swipes a smartcard with the same barcode on a pavement machine.

The system, which can also store bikes in a cylindrical tower above ground, was being demonstrated tonight beside Southwark Tube station as Eco Cycle sought to attract interest from employers and local authorities.

Nick Knight, managing director of Eco Cycle, said the fear of having a bike stolen was second only to concerns about safety in discouraging Londoners to cycle.

More than 17,800 bikes were reported stolen in London last year but campaigners believe many thefts go unreported and the true figure could be around 80,000. The popularity of cycle-to-work schemes, which offer tax breaks to commuter cyclists, had resulted in many high-value bikes now being ridden in the capital, he added.

Mr Knight said: “We feel there are huge benefits because fully-secure cycle parking is not being provided by local authorities or TfL. It’s the missing link to encouraging more cycling.

“We think you can get more people to cycle if you don’t need to have a lock on your bike and you know it’s going to be there when you return.”

Eco Cycle could become a less street-cluttering alternative to on-street racks for Boris bikes, and also hopes to set up a subscription system open to individual cyclists rather than just employees accessing a hangar via a company scheme.

The vault is sunk into the ground to a depth of almost 12 metres and can store 204 bikes. “If you are digging down, as long as you have not got a Tube tunnel in the way or a gas or water main, you can deal with most other things,” Mr Knight said.

He said the scheme had been suggested by landowner Grosvenor when it consulted as part of possible changes to Berkeley Square, but permission had been refused to fit a bike hangar inside a Crossrail ventilation shaft in Finsbury Circus. Secure cycle parking is often made a condition of planning consent but is restricted to employees with access to the building. Mr Knight wants to see them incorporated as part of the new Crossrail stations.

Bike sheds, costing £10 a year for a key fob to gain access, were recently installed at Walthamstow Central and Leytonstone stations as part of the Waltham Forest mini Holland scheme. The Midtown Cycle Vault in Bloomsbury Square has space for 100 bikes, alongside showers and changing rooms, and costs £200 a year.