Atlantic Cities

Why Bike Theft Is So Hard to Stop

Why Bike Theft Is So Hard to Stop
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Many readers don't need statistics to know that bike theft is a big problem in cities, but the numbers do testify to the anecdotes. Streetsblog recently reported that bike theft is up 25 percent in New York. Transportation Alternatives has estimated that upwards of a million bikes get lifted annually (most aren't reported). The F.B.I. values stolen bicycles and their parts at $350 million a year. That's a lot of handlebar bells.

A couple weeks ago Rohin Dhar of the Priceonomics blog wondered just what happens to all these stolen bikes. After consulting news reports and talking with bike shop owners, Dhar concluded that, broadly speaking, there are two types of bike thieves. Many are amateurs who turn them quickly on the street for dimes and nickels on the dollar. Some are professionals who target better bikes, wield effective lock-breaking tools, and resell the goods near market price — often online in other cities.

The big problem, writes Dhar, is that bike thieves essentially get a free pass. (Unless you stole this guy's bike.) Whether you're just trying to make a few bucks on the street, or piling dozens of bikes into a van to drive hundreds of miles to sell them, there's little chance you'll get caught in the act. You can even try to get caught stealing your own bike in front of a police station and not get caught. "For all practical purposes, stealing a bike is risk-free crime," he writes.

A major reason there's no risk is that most city police don't have much incentive to chase bike thieves. Earlier this year Patrick Symmes wrote about his obsession with the world of stolen bikes in Outside magazine. He concluded that the only cops who help riders track down stolen bikes are those who are riders themselves. Symmes says the N.Y.P.D. actually discouraged him from reporting one theft — likely because they wanted to keep their crime figures low:

 … [P]olice departments are reluctant to pull officers from robberies or murder investigations to hunt bike thieves. Even when they do, DAs rarely prosecute the thieves the police bring in.

“It’s just a low priority, to be honest with you,” says Sergeant Joe McCloskey, a bike-theft specialist with the San Francisco police department who estimates that, of the scores of bicycle thieves he has caught, not one did jail time for the crime.

Even when police do care, there's often not much they can do. A recent Department of Justice report on bike theft [PDF] offers two main reasons why. First, identifying suspects is tough because there's usually no relationship between victim and perpetrator. Second, proof of ownership is often lacking, which means that even if you report your stolen bike to the police, and even if the police recover it, and even if they find the person who stole it, the suspect will be released if you didn't register the bike or keep your receipt.

Another reason theft is so prevalent is that locks haven't kept pace with the times. The ones that do work can be so expensive or so heavy that they actually deter people from riding in the first place. GPS trackers can locate a stolen bike, but do nothing to stop thieves who only want to strip its parts. (According to one study from the early 1990s, in about 1 in 5 bike thefts, only the lock and locked part of the bike remained at a crime scene.) You might even argue the most indestructible lock on the market today is the folding bike you take with you.

That's not to say the situation can't improve. The D.O.J. recommends that city police departments do a better job educating the public about safer locks (and, as importantly, locking methods). Cities can help themselves by installing more bike racks and choosing safer rack designs — or at least expanding surveillance. Meanwhile owners can help themselves by registering their bikes and, if possible, applying electronic tags.

But it's also not a bad idea to remember that it takes two to tandem. Many bike thieves bank on the fact that they can sell a stolen bike to someone who knows — or at least strongly suspects — that the bike is stolen. Certainly the thief deserves more of the legal fault here, but a recent study suggests we may go a bit too easy on those who knowingly receive stolen property.

A few years ago Stuart Green, now author of Thirteen Ways to Steal a Bike, and Matthew Kugler teamed up to present a series of 12 theft scenarios involving a $350 bicycle. The scenarios ranged in severity from armed robbery to failure to return lost property. The researchers gathered 172 study participants to rank the situations by blame and issue imaginary sentences to the perpetrators. 

In a 2010 issue of the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, Green and Kugler reported that "receiving stolen property" was seen as the least "blameworthy" crime of the dozen. Beyond that, study participants gave the hypothetical guilty party "no punishment at all" (far left):

It goes without saying that bike thieves should not get a risk-free ride. But until cities are better equipped to catch them, riders might do well to ask themselves what part they can play in deterring the behavior. Sometimes the handlebar bell tolls for thee.

Top image: neko92vl /Shutterstock.com

Keywords: Bike Theft, Police, Crime

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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