Why Does Bike Theft Persist? Because There’s No Enforcement

Here’s some Labor Day weekend reading on one of New York’s vexing problems: bike theft, which, is up 25 percent over last year. As of July, 1,694 bikes were reported stolen this year, according to the NYPD, which encourages bike owners to have their frames etched with identifying codes. Actual thefts are likely much higher than the reported number.

Stolen bikes sold online command higher prices than bikes sold on the street. Image: ##http://blog.priceonomics.com/post/30393216796/what-happens-to-stolen-bicycles##Priceonomics##

Stealing bikes has a relatively low reward compared to other types of theft, yet it remains common. The Priceonomics Blog, run by a company that provides estimates for reselling goods, including bikes, recently looked at why bike theft is so prevalent:

It seems as if stealing bikes shouldn’t be a lucrative form of criminal activity. Used bikes aren’t particularly liquid or in demand compared to other things one could steal (phones, electronics, drugs). And yet, bikes continue to get stolen so they must be generating sufficient income for thieves.

A great number of stolen bikes are resold for cents on the dollar. According to writer Patrick Symmes, who investigated bike theft with the San Francisco Police Department after having his own bicycle stolen, bikes act as one of four forms of “street currency” — the others being cash, sex and drugs. “Of those, only one is routinely left outside unattended,” wrote Symmes.

More advanced thieves resell the bikes for closer to their market value. These bikes often end up on Craigslist, but theft victims have become savvier about keeping an eye out for their wheels online and at flea markets. As a result, these bikes are sometimes shipped and resold in other cities where nobody is looking for them.

In the end, it comes down to risk and reward. Despite the small rewards that bike theft brings to opportunistic criminals, police generally show little to no interest in going after these thefts. As a result, it becomes a virtually risk-free crime.

The NYPD has taken occasional action to crack down on bike theft. The Ninth Precinct, for example, temporarily shut down an East Village bike shop for selling stolen goods; its manager disputed the accusation.

Even though bike theft feels common in many big cities and has received minimal police attention compared to other forms of property theft, it has failed to develop into a truly large-scale underground enterprise, writes Priceonomics:

Criminal masterminds have to value their time and resources, and bike theft isn’t really that profitable […] If you want to get a good price for a stolen bicycle, it requires a decent amount of work. That amount of work is what limits the bike theft trade from really flourishing.

Caroline Samponaro of Transportation Alternatives says that although theft persists in NYC, it’s been less of a scourge in recent years. “I mostly hear from folks that theft feels like less of a problem these days,” she said, despite the recent one-year uptick in NYPD statistics.

With the surge in cycling, Samponaro says one contributing factor to an increase in thefts might be that many new riders do not know how to effectively lock a bicycle. Until bike theft is taken as seriously as other forms of theft, the best defense is locking up correctly. Hal Ruzal can help you out with that.

Enjoy the long weekend, everyone. We’ll see you back here on Tuesday.

  • Joe R.

    Easy solution to bike theft-never lock up your bike outside. Stores should have bike racks inside near the security guard. And offices should allow you to take the bike inside and store it in a secure area.

  • Guest

    I don’t think police are particularly uninspired to catch bike thieves – it’s just their virtually impossible to catch. Lot’s of evidence shows that people are either blithely unaware (or don’t care) when a bike is being stolen in their presence. 

  • Station44025

    They could probably be pretty effective if they used bait-bikes and stings on a regular basis, and it became known among thieves that this is the strategy.

  • JamesR

    Why does (insert illicit/antisocial behavior that isn’t tolerated in other cities) persist? Because there’s no enforcement, of either the official (NYPD) or citizen (see something, say something) variety. Remember that this is the city where the Kitty Genovese murder took place. 

    I’m with Joe R, I value my bikes too much to ever lock them up outside while in Manhattan. In the outer boroughs outside of gentrified Brooklyn, you’re generally fine locking up outside. 

  • R. Kelly

    I don’t think it’s true that police aren’t interested in stopping bike theft because bikes are difficult to recover or that thieves are “virtually impossible to catch.”  

    Stolen iPhones and iPads are extremely difficult to recover, yet the NYPD has made a huge priority out of stopping people who snatch electronics.  In fact, they often use “bait” phones and plainclothes cops to nab people on the subway.  They also regularly raid shops that deal in stolen phones.  If bike thefts were reported with enough regularity that they affected precinct crime stats, I think you’d see the NYPD focus on bike theft. 

  • fj

    Hint, hint:  Years ago when you’d walk in a poor dangerous neighborhood you’d carry your expensive camera in a crumpled paper bag.

  • Joe R.

    SpyBike GPS tracker might be a solution here:

    http://www.integratedtrackers.com/GPSTrack/Spybike.jsp

    I also think if police regularly set up decoy bikes, and went after shops known to resell stolen bicycles, then we might get a handle on this problem.

  • Anonymous

    @2555783a6f62598b6aadd2d882a4830f:disqus , do you realize storing a bike require a lot of space? Almost to the rate of 4 bikes = 1 car parking space. 

  • Anonymous

    To “register” your bike and get the numbers engraved so the police can trace it, you have to go to the precinct. Why not have the bike shops that sell the bikes engrave the digits and then enter them into an electronic database?

  • Anonymous

    My bike already comes from the factory with a serial number engraved on the frame. I think that’s pretty standard. Why not provide a way of registering the bikes online, or at the point of sale, based on the factory-engraved serial number?

  • The automobile title system was introduced long after the automobile, in the 1970s in New York State at least. There’s no reason why we couldn’t have a bicycle title system.

  • Ian Turner

    @jrab:disqus : If you buy a bike from Bicycle Habitat, they record the serial number in their computer systems and link it to the purchase record. I’m sure they are not the only bike shop that works this way. However, this is not recorded in police databases, so if your bicycle is recovered (as about 2% of stolen bikes are) then it will still be sold at auction.

  • Anonymous

    Regarding bicycle identification, what’s the point if the thief can just grind it off? I guess you could say that you’re not allowed to sell a bike without a identification number, like a car?

  • mony1

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