Landon Short / Dan Henry
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Elizabeth Abrams rode mostly for fun, but when she moved to Washington, D.C., a city with a lot of bicycles, in 2020, her motivation to ride a bike became much more practical.
During the pandemic, Abrams did not want to use public transport, so he relied on his bicycle as the main form of transportation.
But months later, her motorcycle was stolen from her backyard in Petworth, a neighborhood in the city’s northwest quadrant.
“I live with a few roommates and we had four bikes outside and we locked them and overnight the lock was cut out and all the bikes were taken,” Abrams said.
Abrams tried to get her bike back by filing a police report and looking at online websites such as Facebook Marketplace in hopes of finding her stolen bike, which was put up for local sale.
But neither she nor her roommates were lucky.
Although bicycle theft has always been a common problem, especially in urban areas, it has increased during the pandemic in a number of cities. The pandemic has led to an unprecedented boom in bicycle sales. Growing demand, increasing riding and a shortage of bicycles across the country, among other factors, may have contributed to the increase in theft, according to the Bike Index, a non-profit organization and national bicycle registry. Beginner cyclists who have taken advantage of the habit recently or rely more heavily on transport bikes may also be unaware of the basics of bicycle safety – especially in urban areas.
Bicycle registries such as the Bike Index allow cyclists to register their bikes for free. If a motorcycle is stolen, the owner can report it to the Bike Index and receive messages and advice through a secure messaging platform.
At the end of 2020, the Bike Index estimates that the total number of bicycles marked as stolen is 96,583, an increase of approximately 24% compared to 2019. The increase may be due to the entry of new riders into the market.
Some cities in the country are also noticing spikes in bicycle theft.
In Seattle, Washington, there is a 54% increase in reported bicycle thefts. Denver, Colorado, saw about a 26 percent increase in bicycle thefts between 2019-2020, according to the Denver Police Department. As for Boston, Massachusetts, it has risen from 790 in 2019 to 1,015 in the last year, an increase of 28%. Similarly, New York recorded a nearly 30% jump from March to September 21 from last year compared to the same period in 2019, according to New York Times.
In San Francisco, meanwhile, there has been a slight decline in bicycle thefts in 2020, according to the city’s police department. The Chicago Police Department reported a 3% drop during the year.
Data on bicycle theft incidents are greatly underestimated, as many thefts are not reported to police departments, said Lily Williams, communications director at the Bike Index.
Project 529, another bicycle registration and non-profit organization, estimates that only 1 in 5 stolen bicycles is actually reported to North American police.
Bicycle theft numbers are compiled from a variety of sources: an FBI report, surveys conducted in cities like San Francisco and Montreal, trends in reports from partner agencies, along with data collected from Project 529, including a study of bicycle thefts with thousands respondents.
Because the data is limited, attempts to provide an accurate portrait of the problem include extrapolation and assumptions, according to J Allard, founder of Project 529. But he mentions that insufficient reporting of these incidents leads to insufficient prioritization.
Once a bicycle is stolen, the owner can rarely retrieve it. Bicycle thieves often manage to get rid of the bike quickly by selling it, which can make it difficult to track. In addition, many bicycle owners do not keep records of the serial number of their bikes and it is a challenge to return it to them, according to Denver police.
The bicycle boom of the pandemic
“As riding increases, we see a lot of riders who don’t really know how to lock their bikes,” says Williams.
The number of bicycles registered in the Bike Index jumped from 306,760 at the end of 2019 to 548,099 next year.
Williams says new riders can choose a cable lock that can be easily cut with basic hardware. “People just don’t really know. They don’t know their bike is vulnerable to theft,” she added.
She also mentioned that the organization had noticed a jump in bicycle thefts from more residential areas, such as locked garages or apartment buildings.
Kristen Buss, who is currently attending medical school in Bloomington, Indiana, stole two bicycles in less than six months from her back porch. Two months ago, she tried to steal her boyfriend’s bike. The lock, which was a metal padlock, was rotated twice around the bike, and although there were cut marks on it, it held up well.
For now, Buss feels discouraged from buying another bike, but will reconsider it when he moves to a new location where it is possible to store the bike inside.
This also made her more reflective of personal security.
“It’s more of a change in the way we look at our whole apartment than just our bikes,” she says.
Dan Henry, another DC resident, had recently stolen his bike from his apartment in the middle of the night. At first he thought it was his upstairs neighbors, but when he checked, he realized that his mountain bike was missing, along with his wallet and a few other things.
“It’s one thing to get a bike stolen from your backyard. It’s another to get someone out the door of the room where you sleep to steal your bike,” says Henry.
Stolen motorcycles are largely resold for profit. The person who steals the bike is unlikely to use it as a means of transportation, according to Brian Hans, director of the Bike Index.
“It’s always about being better from the bike to yours”
Lauren Copsey, co-owner of local bicycle shop The Daily Rider, DC, mentioned that his shop is trying to cope with increased demand as the pandemic encourages more people to ride bicycles for transportation and leisure activities.
In July 2020, his store was sold out.
“Most of the customers we saw in 2020 were definitely either new to cycling or new to cycling in a city, and that required us to teach them what they needed to do to secure their bikes,” he says. Cops.
In terms of bicycle safety, Copsey recommends a bicycle lock, usually at least 10% of the total cost of the bicycle. It also offers cyclists to make estimates of where and how they lock their bikes.
“You don’t want to lock up to a tree. You don’t want to lock up to a fence. You don’t want to lock up to something less secure than the lock you use to protect it next to it,” Copsey said.
He also recommends looking for a sturdy bicycle stand when possible, and that it is “in an environment where it would be obvious if someone used cutting tools on it.”
Although it can be tempting to park the bike in a secluded or less crowded place, this is a greater risk. Williams adds that a cable lock must pass through the two wheels of the bike and the U-Lock, which locks the frame and rear wheel. But there is always a risk factor, even the most complex locks can be defeated.
“It’s always about being better from the bike to yours. It’s just the unfortunate truth about it,” says Copsy.
Whether the recent enthusiasm for cycling is a short-term or long-term trend, Williams argues that better parking infrastructure and bicycle security can help prevent bicycle theft.
Kopsy also mentioned that it could lower the entry bar for many new cyclists.
“It was really hard to find a bike park because obviously there wouldn’t be a bike rack in front of every business you could go to or every block,” Williams said.
“But when there are so many people riding, then there must certainly be places to put your bike.”
Hadia Bakkar is an intern at the NPR National Bureau.