The Bicycle Thieves Among Us

Spokes
New York Times Blog | March 31, 2009

By David Goodman

Bike theft and its cousin, bike abandonment, are aspects of urban cycling as sure as broken glass, potholes and the lurking threat of being doored.

But while warm weather and the start of the racing season have lately caused many to saddle up again, for some people and some neighborhoods, it seems the fear of theft just isn't there anymore.

Around Union Square and in Williamsburg last Wednesday, there was a lackluster quality to the way some had their rides locked up.

Maybe Hal, of Bicycle Habitat on Lafayette, needs to do another round of video chastisement for StreetFilms. ("I could probably chew through this," he said of one particularly lightweight lock when he canvassed Lower Manhattan last spring.)

Having one's bike stolen is a part of our collective experience as urban riders. It provides the rationale for a Web site, "Someone Stole My Bike," that appeared recently and features video testimonials from riders about the day their beloved bikes were taken away.

"In one way, it's a deeply personal experience which makes you feel singled out and which has very real repercussions for your daily commute as well as how you spend your leisure time," said Susie Cooley, a television producer and one of the creators of the site, the genesis of which was, not surprisingly, the theft of a producer's bike.

"And on the other hand, you realize that having your bike stolen is almost inevitable, especially in a city like New York," she said, adding, "Despite the ubiquitous nature of bike theft, every case is unique to the victim."

Quantifying the number of bikes stolen off city streets is not a simple task.

Official statistics are difficult to come by in part because the police don't separate bike thefts from other types of petty theft. The Department of Transportation and others studied the problem a decade ago, but have not recently returned to the problem, which has most likely diminished from its formerly epic proportions. (A Transportation Alternatives survey from 1992 found an average of one bike theft per rider.)
Bicycle lockMore loops do not ensure security. This cheap mountain bike on University near Union Square had its frame well protected, but the quick-release seat was there for the taking.

Exact numbers are hard to pin down from other sources as well. The Kryptonite company, which makes a "New York" line of heavy duty locks and chains, releases a yearly ranking of the top 10 worst cities for bike theft. But their exact formula and underlying data are "proprietary," according to a spokeswoman, Karen Rizzo.

She would say only that "a key factor is the number of bicycle theft claims we receive from people who believe their bike was stolen while using" one of the company's locks.

For the past three years, the company said it received theft claims most often from three ZIP codes in Lower Manhattan, 10002, 10003 and 10004, and one in Brooklyn, 11217, which includes parts of Downtown Brooklyn, Boerum Hill and Clinton Hill..

Nevertheless, New York fell from its top spot on the Kryptonite list last year to No. 3, behind Philadelphia and Chicago.

Even so, the company said it had no plans to change the name of the "New York" product line, or to begin marketing "Philly" locks. "Cyclists all over the U.S. still consider New York to be the toughest place to own and ride a bike, despite a one-year blip in our chart," Ms. Rizzo wrote in an e-mail message.

Others echo that sentiment. "New York has always been the capital because we have the most bikes," said Wiley Norvell of Transportation Alternatives. "And the most pernicious thieves."

Which raises the question: With an economic downturn and so many nice fixed-gear and road-racing bikes pedaling around hundreds of miles of new paths, will thieves be even more pernicious this summer?

Spokes is a new weekly City Room feature about bicycling in New York.