BEWARE: Lower Manhattan Bike Racks are a Thief’s Best Friend

Leora Trub shows off the since-repaired bike rack where her two-wheeler was easily swiped with the turn of a screwdriver (see inset). Photo: Gersh Kuntzman
Leora Trub shows off the since-repaired bike rack where her two-wheeler was easily swiped with the turn of a screwdriver (see inset). Photo: Gersh Kuntzman
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They’re gorgeous bike racks that only a thief could love.

A cyclist is seeking not only reimbursement for a stolen bike that she had locked to an easily defeated rack, but is also demanding that the Alliance for Downtown New York replace scores of the sleek-looking, but ultimately unsafe, posts with ones that are more secure.

Dr. Leora Trub had locked her bike to one of the stylish posts on Nov. 8 on Broadway in the Financial District only to return just a couple of hours later to find that a thief had unscrewed the arm of the bike rack and easily removed her two-wheeler, lock and all. The arms of such bike racks are affixed with a simple hex screw. There are scores such racks in Manhattan below Chambers Street, and tools to defeat them are readily available at hardware stores and online.

It was the first time Trub, who uses her bike to get from Crown Heights to the Financial District, has had a bike stolen.

“That’s why this is so frustrating,” she told Streetsblog. “To have a bike stolen for the first time in 20 years because of this kind of rack. People I’ve told about this can’t believe it. In the back of your mind, you know that a lock could always fail, but you never assume that the rack itself will be the problem.”

All it takes is an easy-to-buy hex key to dismantle one of the Downtown Alliance's racks. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman
All it takes is an easy-to-buy hex key to dismantle one of the Downtown Alliance’s racks. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman

The Downtown Alliance initially offered Trub a tiny settlement — “It barely covered the cost of the lock,” Trub said — because its racks were approved by the city Department of Transportation. But Trub persisted, telling the Alliance that such racks “are an invitation for people to lock their bikes to them, despite having a major flaw that renders the rack completely ineffective.”

She was also told by a police officer that hers was not the first theft of this kind. To her, bike racks of this kind are “more like an invitation for a bike to be stolen than a secure place to lock it,” she said. “I have been using a  system of locks to ensure that it cannot be stolen easily. In this case, a person was able to steal it without even having to tamper with the lock itself.”

The Alliance was polite and professional throughout the initial negotiations, Trub said, but she eventually turned to the law firm of Vaccaro and White for help. “No bike rack is theft-proof, however, the racks installed by the Alliance are singularly inappropriate as they are so easily defeated with a simple hand tool,” lawyer Peter Beadle argued.

He added that the Alliance’s prior knowledge of the racks’ deficiency — and its inaction to thwart thieves — justifies a full reimbursement for Trub.

The Alliance not only disagreed, but General Counsel Michael Ketring withdrew the group’s initial small offer, writing on Friday, “Our bicycle bollards … are not warrantied to be risk-free.”

He did admit that “a wrench for the specialized bolt could possibly be obtained from sources for such specific products,” but characterized that as “hardly an ‘invitation’ to thieves as you claim.”

“Any user accepts the risks for the free use of these bollards,” Ketring added. He also blamed Trub for not locking to something more secure.

“She could have used another option to safeguard her expensive bike such as putting it in a parking garage or anchoring it to other available objects that are legal for bike locking,” he said.

Beadle responded with frustration at the Alliance’s “unfortunate” response.

“Being a free amenity that is not ‘risk free’ is rather different than inviting people who do not want their bicycle stolen to lock it to something that is so easily defeated,” he wrote, adding the ultimate put-down about the racks as “not suitable for New York City.”

“It is an intriguing defense to blame the victim and suggest she never should have used your defective bike rack in the first place,” he added. “The racks should be removed [because] these particular racks are easy to defeat with the use of an easily obtained tool.”

Chart: Transportation Alternatives
Chart: Transportation Alternatives

At this point, Trub has no expectation that she will get any compensation, but is going public to ensure that no one ends up like her: bikeless.

“I just want people to know not to lock to these kinds of racks,” she said. “I’m sure the Downtown Alliance acted with good intentions, but if you don’t fix the problem, then you lose credit for the good intensions.”

The experience is a reminder that the fear of bike theft, or experiencing it, is one of the main hurdles for getting people to switch to biking from other modes. The city DOT is in the midst of adding thousands of bike racks after studies have shown that fear of having a bike stolen inhibits almost half of low-income riders from riding as often as they would like.

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