Locking It Down
At 13:40, his partner rode up, dismounted, and locked his bike up alongside mine, a standard maneuver. The lock created an illusion, a bit of street theater. Two guys, two bikes, one plan.
At 13:41, they were making a sawing motion. After a few minutes, they tried a hammering motion. Then they switched to the Brennan—named for the San Francisco man who demonstrated on the Web that jamming the soft tube of a Bic pen into some locks can open them. After a 17-minute assault, the brave little Kryptonite softie finally gave.
By my count, 142 people had walked past in that time. Only one, the very last one, tried to do anything. As the lock yielded and the thief jumped onto my bike, an elderly black man in a Kangol cap lunged for them both. But it was too late. The blue Novara vanished into traffic.
After lunch, when I discovered and reported the theft, two detectives from Midtown South arrived in minutes. The Novara—Bike One, as I came to think of it—was assigned Complaint No. 1026. I never saw it again.
Late at night, though, I would get the DVD out. The building manager at the Penn Club had burned me a copy of the surveillance footage. I’d stay up, watching the injustice unfold, freezing, advancing, making screen grabs. I learned the whole drama by heart: the approach, the call, the partner, the battle with my lock, the civic hero in the Kangol.
When I’d look up, it would be 2 A.M.
I WANT MY BIKE BACK. So do we all. With the rise of the bicycle age has come a rise in bicycle robbery: FBI statistics claim that 204,000 bicycles were stolen nationwide in 2010, but those are only the documented thefts. Transportation Alternatives, a bicycle advocacy group in New York City, estimates the unreported thefts at four or five times that—more than a million bikes a year. New York alone probably sees more than 100,000 bikes stolen annually. Whether in big biking cities like San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, or in sport-loving suburbs and small towns, theft is “one of the biggest reasons people don’t ride bikes,” Noah Budnick, deputy director of Transportation Alternatives, told me. Although bike commuting has increased by 100 percent in New York City during the past seven years, the lack of secure bike parking was ranked alongside bad drivers and traffic as a primary deterrent to riding more. It’s all about the (stolen) bike; even Lance Armstrong had his custom time-trial Trek nicked from the team van in 2009 after a race in California. Not every bike is that precious, but according to figures from the FBI and the National Bike Registry, the value of stolen bikes is as much as $350 million a year.
That’s a lot of bike. Stolen bicycles have become a solvent in America’s underground economy, a currency in the world of drug addicts and petty thieves. Bikes are portable and easily converted to cash, and they usually vanish without a trace—in some places, only 5 percent are even reported stolen. Stealing one is routinely treated as a misdemeanor, even though, in the age of electronic derailleurs and $5,000 coffee-shop rides, many bike thefts easily surpass the fiscal definition of felony, which varies by state but is typically under the thousand-dollar mark. Yet police departments are reluctant to pull officers from robberies or murder investigations to hunt bike thieves. Even when they do, DAs rarely prosecute the thieves the police bring in.