Save Your Bike: The Ten Commandments of Theft Prevention
by Frank Gresham
The street seems always to have the upper hand on us. New bike locks come and go, but bicycle theft remains a constant in New York City.
Since volunteering to help Transportation Alternatives' theft prevention committee this past summer, I've learned that many city cyclists aren't savvy to the ways of NYC bike thieves. Cops, too, seem out of touch with the true scope of bicycle theft in the city. (See "Theft Plague Continues" in the Sept-Oct City Cyclist). And more than a few bike shops either don't know or aren't mentioning to customers that the high-tech lock their customer has just selected to secure a new $400 city-bike can be removed in 30 seconds by a thief armed with a pipe or a length of wood. Often, our baffled victims return to the same bike shops as before, and the theft cycle begins all over again.
Step one in reclaiming our streets and our bicycles from bike thieves is to arm ourselves with awareness of current theft techniques and prevention principles. As obvious as some of these concepts may seem, they demand constant review. Based on input from our collective experiences, these maxims are the essential rules, the "10 Commandments," of bike theft prevention for New York City cyclists.
I. Your bicycle, no matter what type it is, how old it is, or what shape it's in, is valuable and sellable merchandise to the bike thief. It's in danger of being stolen anytime, anywhere - while you're riding it, while it's locked on the street, or while it's stored indoors. (Sounds discouraging, but to keep this principle in mind is to begin your theft prevention game plan.)
II. As you ride your bicycle, especially in quiet areas such as parks, bridges and backstreets, be alert for the possibility of an ambush - a situation where you could be accosted and your bicycle forcibly taken from you. This doesn't just happen to meek, solitary stragglers in Central Park, but to groups of riders alike and, as I know first hand, to big strong boys like me.
III. Ideally, never leave your bike outside, locked or otherwise. Take it indoors when you're not riding it (tough in this city but nevertheless an ideal). If an establishment won't let you bring your bike into their premises, raise a fuss! The more "squeaky wheels" within our ranks regarding building access, the more "grease" we'll earn.)
IV. If you must leave your bike outdoors, don't leave it for long. The longer your bike is left unattended, the greater the danger of it or its components being stolen. If it takes less than a minute for a thief to pop a lock, imagine what he can do to your bike if it's left out on the stoop overnight. Whenever possible, lock your bike where you can observe it from indoors. Most importantly, lock it with several different types of locks to something immoveable. Also, make sure your bike is locked to something imbedded in concrete, which can't otherwise be uprooted or dismantled to free your bike. Unfortunately, rigid anchors, like parking meters, may not be the safest place to secure your bike. Overly rigid posts form a solid backing for the fulcrum method of cracking locks. According to a bicycle thief on St. Marks Place, the metal posts of no-parking and stop signs are, ironically, hard to steal from with the pipe method because of their flexibility.
V. Outdoors or indoors, even in your home, keep your bike locked to something if you're not on it. Lots of people lose bikes indoors at their workplace because they leave them unattended and unlocked. Likewise, I know more than one individual who's lost a good bike when his apartment was burglarized. Radiator pipes are great for hitching to if you can keep tires and components away from hot pipes.
VI. No bike lock can permanently safeguard your cycle against advancing theft technology. Keep your ears peeled for reports of bike theft involving your type of locking arrangement. If thieves have finally "cracked your code," start shopping for new armor fast. Don't be afraid to be imaginative with your own bike-lock system; the most popular and prevalent locking scheme is the one thieves will most quickly equip themselves to defeat.
VII. Be on the lookout for bike thieves while you are out and about. As City Cyclist has mentioned in earlier articles, current tools of the trade include lengths of pipe or wood, often disguised by paper wrapping, which are levered against the common U-shaped lock. Other tools include bolt-cutting clippers. Bike thieves may work alone, as a pair, or as a group, and via auto, bike or on foot. Word has it that a team of thieves is now cruising in a van and stealing bikes off the street in broad daylight - one hops out with a pipe and the other with a bolt cutter. Anywhere many bicycles are regularly parked, you will eventually find bike thieves. Some thieves even stash their lock-breaking pipes in a gutter or alley near a prime theft location so they won't have to trek long distances conspicuously with the tool before using it to steal a bike. Bicycle component thieves often ride their own bikes around in search of prime targets. Having found your bike, they will pilfer all components not secured to the rest of the bike via a cable or chain. The component thief's most visible tool is a set of Vice-Grip pliers. If you do see a bike thief or even someone acting suspiciously, call the police. Then, observe from a safe distance. Whatever you do, don't accost the thief directly! To do so is to risk assault or serious injury. Remember, most bike thieves are career criminals who urgently need to exchange a bicycle for money.
VIII. Register your bike with your local police precinct's "Operation Identification" program or similar arrangement. Then, carry its identification number, model number, and serial number with you at all times. (As stated in the Sept-Oct City Cyclist, Operation Identification is the only feasible way the NYPD can return your bike to you if it's recovered.)
IX. If your bicycle should be stolen, report it immediately to the police, whether you registered it or not. You'll be given a police report number. Keep this number on your person, in addition to your bike's serial number, etc. If you should see your bike on the street, flag a patrol car, reference your report number, and have the officer retrieve your bike. Don't be afraid to press charges against the individual who bought your stolen bike; bicycle theft would largely cease if people stopped buying stolen bikes. Your bike's new "owner" might just "volunteer" to lead you and the authorities to your bike's thief or fence. If you registered your bike with "Operation Identification" and it is turned in, you'll be called when your bike is found. Otherwise, you'll be in for several trips to the police properties warehouse in Queens if you care to sift through a zillion or so bikes until you find the one you can prove is yours. You'll also want to tell your insurance company the bad news. Likewise the manufacturer of your lock if they had a guarantee policy you troubled yourself to become eligible for and which they still honor. Similarly, if you turn it in to the local police precinct, you'll receive a voucher which will entitle you to the bike if it's unclaimed after 90 days.
X. Finally, if the theft of your bike appears to represent a new trend in bike theft technique, alert Transportation Alternatives. While T.A. can't help retrieve stolen bicycles, we can help diminish the frequency of theft in the first place. With your input, we can keep other T.A. members abreast of new theft and prevention trends, and of bike theft "hot spots" and fencing areas. (Broadway between Bleecker and Houston Streets, and 5th Avenue at 18th street, in front of Barnes & Noble, are chronically insecure for bikes. St. Marks Place in the East Village remains Manhattan's most notorious fencing locale.) Better yet, become involved with us as we test solutions to the theft epidemic.
These tenets will seem elementary to some and excessive to others. Yet we in the cycling community continue to lose. bicycles at an alarming rate via the same "obvious" circumstances. If our precautions seem to take the fun out of cycling, NYC has an amazing capacity to lake the fun out of lots of things.
Of course life here for bicyclists would be easier if bike theft weren't such a problem. But bike theft is only one facet of a much larger, more serious disorder. Daunting as it may seem, those of us who would eliminate bike theft in this city must ultimately become involved in issues of drug abuse, poverty, and the like.
Look for further articles in City Cyclist on bike theft and how Transportation Alternatives is trying to prevent it. Thanks to those of you who have called in with helpful information, and again...sorry about the loss of your bikes.
Dear City Cyclist:
Fellow members of T.A. will be gratified to hear the following story about the Police Department's interest in bike theft.
In mid-July I rented a Hertz truck for an office move. As I was driving up Nassau Street and onto Beekman Street a police car signaled me to pull over. I figured he was upset that I drove on the pedestrian mall, albeit late at night. However, he actually wanted to see what was in the truck. The reason? He said that rental trucks had been used recently to steal bicycles and carry them away. After inspecting my load, he let me go. I was especially impressed since, as a 40-year-old white business executive, I do not fit the common stereotypes of bicycle thieves.
Additionally, I want to comment that our best weapon in the battle against bike theft is universal mandatory bicycle registration including decals and engraving. We should remind ourselves that automobile registration was introduced at the request of motorists because of its advantages (such as security) and not imposed by government on a resisting population of motorists. We too should clamor for such protection. I recently saw my stolen recumbent bicycle on the street and was able to hold it up and inspect it. I am absolutely positive it was my bike - it had the same plastic ties and half-eaten plastic fender on it - but I had neglected to engrave it and could not prove it was mine, so I congratulated the possessor of the bike for having a great bike and had to walk away from my $500 prize. Oh well.