By Lisa Han
One morning, a few months ago at the NYC bike shop Bicycle Habitat, a woman brought her bike in for an ordinary repair. In the afternoon she picked it up and locked it with a cable to the trunk rack on her car, which was parked in front of the shop, while she went to run some errands. While she was away, a man with a pair of wire cutters picked up her bike and started walking down the street. Fortunately, an employee at the bike shop saw the incident and wrestled the perpetrator to the ground. The bicycle was saved, but the near-theft experience taught her a lesson in reality that more and more city bikers are learning every day: in a place as bustling as New York, bike theft could happen anywhere, anytime.
Photo courtesy of Ildar Sagdejev
According to a statement from an NYPD spokesman at the end of July, bicycle theft has increased by 25 percent from last year, with about 1,694 thefts reported as of that statement. DNAinfo.com reports that Williamsburg and Greenpoint have been particularly popular targets, due in large part to the overall increase of cyclists in those areas.
Ben Shepard, a volunteer at Time’s Up, a nonprofit organization focused on sustainability and biking, explains that these days, it’s not just the frame you have to worry about keeping safe, but anything in sight – wheels, seats, bells, and lights. There have even been reports of stolen parts from ghost bikes, which are put up around the city to commemorate those who have died in biking accidents—a crime that Shepard likens to “stealing the communion money at church.”
Shepard recently lost his own two-wheeling treasure after locking it in an unsafe area: “It makes me want to cry a little thinking about it. My father-in-law used to be the road manager for the band Hall and Oates, and in the 1980s, they were on tour and somehow as part of the arrangement he and the members of the band all got these incredible Bianchi bicycles… I fixed up the tires, it was beautiful! It took one night at the Lower East Side parked in front of god knows what bar, and I came back out to get the bike and it was gone.”
What options are there for the throngs of city dwellers who, like Shepard, form some serious attachments to their bikes? Nathanael Rotsko, the sales manager at Bicycle Habitat, explains that, while they are essential, locks should be considered preventative measures, not guarantees. “If someone really wants your bike, they’re going to take it. What you can do is make it as difficult and as complicated as possible.”
According to Rotsko, coil cable locks (which are cheap) are relatively easy to cut, so he recommends shelling out for something made of metal: “…either a metal U-Lock like a Kryptonite, an OnGuard, or there’s a new company called Tigr Lock; they have two locks that are titanium that are pretty cool because the properties of titanium make it hard to cut through.” With this material, breaking the lock requires more time and effort, increasing the probability of witness intervention.
While having the right kind of lock is helpful, basic strategies also make a big difference. Putting your bike indoors or on a true bike rack are the safest bets, but if you’re forced to improvise, there are ways to do it properly. Rotsko explains that because the bike frame and wheels are the most valuable parts to any bike, they should almost always take priority in terms of security measures.
But the bike also needs to be locked to the right kind of structure. “Whenever you’re locking to something you always want to make sure you jiggle it to make sure it’s not just pushed into the ground. You want to make sure it’s bolted to the ground, like a parking meter or sign—anything that is going to be attached to the ground but also has something on the top,” says Rotsko. “I’ve seen people lock around one of those poles but there’s nothing on top of it so you can just lift the bike up and take it away.”
Most importantly, bike owners need to be vigilant about where they keep their bikes. In densely populated urban spaces where theft is more commonplace, vehicles shouldn’t be locked up overnight, in a deserted area, or in the same spot for more than a few days in a row.
If preventative measures fail and the bike is stolen, it will typically go straight to the black market. At this point the chances of recovery are low, but there are still steps to take for the more hopeful of victims. The quickest route is to register your bike with the NYPD, who will contact you if your bike is recovered in a raid. It also doesn’t hurt if you have a picture of the bike, or better yet, its serial number.
Others, however, find that using social media has been more effective than leaving the matter to the police. Shepard notes that posting photos, around town or on Facebook, has been effective for some people. Victims can also check Craigslist in case the thief tries to sell the bike online.
Ultimately, a biker’s best defense is preparation; take Shepard’s advice:
“My friend Mike Green lent the person his bike—it was someone he didn’t really know, and the person just rode off. So word to the wise, if somebody walks up to you who you don’t know in New York City and asks if they can try out your bike, don’t do it!”