Theft and Vandalism Just Not a Problem For American Bike-Sharing

Minneapolis' bike-share system has only had __ stolen bike, but it's not just because they're Minnesota nice. Theft and vandalism haven't been a problem for American bike-sharing systems. Photo: __.
Minneapolis's bike-share system has only had two stolen bikes, and not just because people there are Minnesota nice. Theft and vandalism haven't been a problem for any American bike-sharing system. Photo: Kevin Jack ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/kevinmjack/4913558271/##via Flickr##.

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.”

  • Great news.

    It would be good to get comprehensive information on bikeshare state-of-the-art so potentially NYC can push the envelope.

  • That some bikes may get stolen should not be an impediment to instituting a bike share, as this post states. Plenty of cars are stolen or vandalized every day, yet no one declares driving a failure because of that fact.

    Well, no one outside of Streetsblog commenters, of course.

  • The paris report was issued by jcdecaux as they were negotiating an extension in the contract.

    It was basically “look at the reasons we need more money!”

    The BBC report took that and flipped it in away I thought only Fox was capable of.

  • mcas

    Since these concerns are primarily financial, advocates need to address them from that viewpoint. Why not ask JC Decaux Co. to explain what happened *financially* to those damaged/stolen bikes — if they recovered the costs, what’s the big deal, especially in the relatively small numbers for such a massive system? If they didn’t recover the costs, what failure in the system allowed for someone to destroy the bikes and not pay for it, and how can that be remedied?

    If everyone gave a credit card for their bike, what’s the problem? Legitimate users should pay for damage/loss if they didn’t lock their bike; the company should absorb the cost if their system has a security flaw. It seems like damage (and the extent of it) is a straw man argument.

  • mfs

    The velib system does get a lot of damage to the bikes, but I don’t think it’s because of vandalism mostly. My impression is that
    * The bike stations are in the streetbed w/o protection from vehicles, so they get knocked into a lot
    * The Parisians ride them really really hard- a common way of “checking” to see if the bike is functional is kicking the back tire and then picking up the bike by the seat and dropping it.
    * It’s hard to maintain bikes that ride 50% of the time on cobbles
    * There’s a lot of cheap plastic components despite the fact that the bike is over 50 lbs.
    * The system is so popular that people ride the crap out of those bikes. I wouldn’t be surprised if the bikes there get turned over more often than in other cities.

    The Barcelona “Bicing” system, while I didn’t get to use it, seemed much better maintained, although more geographically limited.

    Also the Paris one is much more tourist friendly, although most American credit cards don’t work.

  • MRN

    It’s Just Not A Problem – CASE CLOSED!

  • Bob

    The risk is that theft and vandalism will overshadow the benefits of bike sharing, especially given that taxpayer money will be used.

  • Might be good to have some studies on the effect of cycling on street crime.

    Remember something like more people on the street means less crime.

  • Stan

    Petty crime and vandalism is rampant in Paris, it is no surprise that it would affect their bike share program as well. New York has far less petty crime and shouldn’t suffer from this problem like the central/southern European capitals.

  • Chris

    The statement, “Theft and vandalism haven’t been a problem for any American bike-sharing system,” is a bit premature. My understanding is that Buffalo, NY’s Blue bike system has had problems. The downtown area, which had some of the system’s first hub, seems to have had hubs removed, presumably as a result of those problems.

  • ranzchic

    4 years on, and we even have more bike share systems now and theft seems to not be a problem at all.

  • PretenderNX01

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