September/October 1996, p.6-7

Operation You-Lock:
T.A. Investigates NYC Bike Theft
One major reason for not cycling in the city is fear of theft

Conventional wisdom holds that New York City is the bicycle theft capital of the universe. Most New Yorkers know someone who has had at least one bike stolen, and cyclists talk about bike locks like some people talk about real estate.

The problem is enormous: One-hundred and seventy bikes are stolen every day off NYC streets, costing New Yorkers more than $20 million a year. Bikes left on the street either get swiped because they're left unattended for "just a second," or they get stripped of wheels, brakes, and components when locked up. Hot bikes are sold on the street with impunity, and people are more than willing to fork over $50 for a $500 mountain bike, no questions asked. A 1992 City Cyclist survey revealed that nearly every cyclist has had at least one bike stolen in the city. With NYC's reputation in the gutter, Kryptonite, the country's largest lock manufacturer, until recently would guarantee its locks everywhere in the world except Manhattan.

As bike thieves up the ante with bigger bolt cutters. New Yorkers have responded by investing in the toughest and heaviest locks available. (More than half of all Kryptonite NY Locks and St. Pierre Quadchains are sold here.) Still, some cyclists balk at the locks' high price tags, and many end up securing their bikes with inferior locks or choosing not to ride at all. In fact, the City Cyclist survey found that fear of theft was the number one reason for not cycling in the city.

Fighting Fear
Because bike theft-both real and imagined-remains a giant deterrent to cycling in New York, Transportation Alternatives is releasing a comprehensive report on the problem in September. The report offers a plan for bike shops, the police department, and cyclists to prevent bike theft and take the fear out of locking up.

T.A. Recommends:

  • Government focus on bike theft: The city has $45 million to spend on cycling improvements, but little, if any, has been earmarked for reducing bike theft.
  • Better bike parking: The city DOT should support bike parking in garages and better bike access to private buildings, and speed up installation of bicycle racks.
  • Greater education of cyclists: Many people simply don't know how to lock their bikes correctly. (See July/Aug. T.A. magazine for locking tips.) The city's bicycle program needs to devote greater resources to public outreach and education, and could start by funding Bike Week.
  • NYPD Bicycle Recovery Unit: Nearly as many bikes are stolen as cars in New York, but the police don't make it easy for cyclists to report the crimes, and do almost nothing to try and recover their bikes. Upper Manhattan's 20th Precinct has already conducted a successful sting operation, catching thieves-with tools in hand-within hours of the crimes. NYPD should expand such programs and, like Denver, should create a full-time Bike Recovery unit that would target people and businesses that traffic in stolen bikes.

Bike Theft Facts:

  • Number of bikes stolen every year in the U.S.: 5,475,000
  • Number of bikes stolen in NYC, 1995: 55,820
  • Nationally, percentage of bike thefts that are never reported: 90%
  • Number of bikes reported stolen in NYC, 1985: 10,428
  • In NYC, average number of bikes reported stolen annually, 1990-1995: 6,200
  • Number of bikes stolen every day from NYC streets: 170
  • Annual cost of bike theft to New Yorkers: $21.7 million
  • Percentage of bike thefts committed "on impulse": 85%
  • Percentage of bikes stolen in NYC that are returned: 1.4%
  • Percentage in Denver: 8%
  • Ratio of bikes stolen to cars stolen in NYC, 1995: 1:1.14
  • Average annual number of claims against Kryptonite locks, 1984-1989: 135
  • Average annual number of claims against the New York Lock, 1994-1996: 11
  • Manhattan ZIP codes with the most Kryptonite claims, 1984-1989: 10001, 10003, 10014, 10023

Sources for T.A. bike theft index:
1: American Center for Bicycle Registration (estimate)
2, 3, 6, 7, 11: Transportation Alternatives survey data (estimates)
4, 5, 9: NYC, Police Dept.
8: League of American Bicyclists
10: Denver Police Dept.
12, 13, 14: Kryptonite Corporation