Even as bike-sharing spreads across the United States, it remains dogged by one persistent doubt. Critics, and even some boosters, fear that the bikes will be routinely stolen and vandalized. It’s time to stop worrying about crime, however. In America’s new bike-sharing systems, there have been essentially no such problems.
Fears that public bikes will be abused can be traced to Paris’s Vélib system, which while wildly popular has struggled with high levels of theft and vandalism. Take Michael Grynbaum’s write-up last week of New York City’s bike-share plans in the Times, where crime is portrayed as the only downside:
In Paris, the pioneer of bike-sharing, the bikes are used up to 150,000 times a day. But there has also been widespread theft and vandalism; bicycles have ended up tossed in the Seine, dangling from lampposts and shipped off to northern Africa for illegal sale.
The scenes of Vélib bike abuse replicate descriptions widely circulated in a 2009 BBC story about the system’s troubles. The problems with Vélib are real, if overhyped by the media. In 2009, JCDecaux, the advertising agency that runs Vélib, estimated that over 8,000 bikes were stolen and another 8,000 rendered unrideable and irreparable. It was a problem that had to be addressed.
Luckily for the rest of the world, it seems to have been an easy fix for other cities. Many now believe that the locking mechanism at Vélib’s stations was poorly designed. Systems that use a different method have successfully controlled theft to the point where the cost is negligible.
Vélib bikes lock on the side of the frame, as seen here. Other operators, including ClearChannel, B-cycle and the Public Bike System, have had dramatically lower rates of theft and use a different locking method, explained Bill Dossett, who runs Minneapolis’s new NiceRide bike-sharing system. “The ClearChannel systems had the locking mechanism built into the headset,” where the handlebars meet the bicycle frame, “and just has never had the same problems,” he said.
For example, Barcelona’s Bicing system, run by ClearChannel, has had about one-fifth the rate of stolen public bikes as Vélib, despite higher theft rates citywide, according to the New York Department of City Planning.
Stateside, the problems with crime have been smaller still.
“Theft and vandalism hasn’t been a big problem with either of our two systems,” said Jim Sebastian, who runs Washington D.C.’s bike and pedestrian programs. Under D.C.’s old SmartBike system, which opened in 2008, only one bike was ever stolen, and that was when a rider left it unsecured. Under the new and larger Capital Bikeshare system, which launched in September with about 1,100 bikes, they’ve lost fewer than five bikes, Sebastian said.
“We did have some vandalism at the beginning,” added Sebastian. “People test the limits at first, basically.” That’s died down now that the program is up and running, he said. “There’s nothing that hampers the operation of the system.”
Sebastian said there’s no trick to keeping the bikes safe. “Just making it difficult to get the bikes out of the rack,” is the key, he said.
In Minneapolis, again, theft and vandalism simply haven’t materialized as problems. The operators expected to lose around ten percent of their bikes to crime in the first year, but so far, that figure has only turned out to be 0.3 percent.
With 700 bikes on the streets since June, said Dossett, only two bikes have disappeared. Vandalism has been minimal: There have been a few bikes that were graffitied, a few tires slashed, and one incident in which a motorist hit a bike-sharing station and shattered some glass. “That’s been $5,000 worth of damage,” he said. “I think you’d be hard-pressed to find any system that operates any equipment in the public sphere with that low a damage rate.”
Dossett agreed that good locking mechanisms are key, and also urged New York to create some community pride in the bike-sharing project. “You want people to see this as a local initiative and as something that’s got everybody’s health in mind,” he said. “Then people won’t want to lash out against it.”
The story’s the same in Denver, where bikes are all equipped with a GPS device that can be used for tracking and security purposes. So far there hasn’t been much need to recover stolen bikes. “We’ve had one bike stolen since we launched on April 22,” said Parry Burnap, executive director of Denver Bike Sharing. “One bike damaged, someone tried to scrape the logos off.”
There was also one incident in which a number of bikes had their tires slashed, as did all the cars in the neighborhood. “And that’s it,” said Burnap. “We’ve made no claims on our insurance policy, so that’s really an indicator of the low level of damage we’ve gotten.”