Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Elizabeth Abrams mainly cycled for fun, but when she moved to Washington, D.C., a fairly bikeable city, in 2020, her motivations for biking became much more practical.
Abrams did not want to take public transportation during the pandemic, and therefore, relied on her bicycle as the main form of transportation.
But months later, her bike got stolen from her back patio in Petworth, a neighborhood in the northwest quadrant of the city.
“I live with a few roommates and we had four bikes that were outside and we had them locked and overnight the lock was cut and all of the bikes were taken,” Abrams says.
Abrams tried to recover the bike by filing a police report and looked around on online websites such as Facebook Marketplace in hopes of finding her stolen bike listed for sale locally.
But none of her roommates, nor she, had any luck.
Although bike theft has always been a common issue, especially in urban areas, it increased during the pandemic in a number of cities. The pandemic led to an unprecedented boom in bikes sales. The rising demand, increase in ridership, and shortage of bikes nationwide among other factors, has likely contributed to a rise in theft, according to Bike Index, a nonprofit organization and national bicycle registry. Novice cyclists who picked up the habit recently or are relying more heavily on bikes for transportation may also be unaware of the basics of bike security — especially in urban areas.
Bicycle registries such as Bike Index allow cyclists to register their bikes for free. If a bike is stolen, the owner can report it on Bike Index and receive messages and tips through a secure messaging platform.
At the end of 2020, Bike Index estimates that the total number of bikes marked stolen was 96,583, an approximately 24% increase from the data of 2019. The increase could be attributed to new riders entering the market.
Some cities across the country are also seeing spikes in bicycle thefts.
In Seattle, Wash., there was a 54% increase in reported bicycle thefts. Denver, Colo., has seen around 26% increase in bike theft between 2019-2020, according to the Denver Police Department. As for Boston, Mass., it has climbed from 790 in 2019 to 1015 in the last year, a 28% increase. New York City has similarly seen a nearly 30% spike from March to Sept. 21 of last year when compared to the same period in 2019, according to The New York Times.
Meanwhile, San Francisco has seen a slight decrease in bike theft in 2020, according to the city’s police department. The Chicago Police Department reported a 3% decrease during the year as well.
The data regarding bike theft incidents is highly underreported as many thefts are not reported to police departments, says Lily Williams, communications director at Bike Index.
Project 529, another bike registry and nonprofit organization, estimates that only 1 in 5 stolen bikes are actually reported to the police in North America.
Bike theft numbers are compiled from different sources: an FBI report, studies done in cities such as San Francisco and Montreal, trending reports from partner agencies, along with data collected by Project 529 including a bike theft survey with thousands of respondents.
Since the data is limited, attempts to provide an accurate portrait of the issue involve extrapolation and guesswork, according to J Allard, founder of Project 529. But he mentions that underreporting of these incidents leads to under-prioritization.
Once a bike stolen, it’s rare that the owner can retrieve it. Often, bike thieves manage to get rid of the bike quickly by selling it, which can make it hard to track. In addition, many bike owners do not keep records of the serial number of their bikes, and it’s challenging to return it to them, according to the Denver Police Department.
The bike boom of the pandemic
“With the increase in ridership, we see a lot of riders who don’t really know how to lock their bike,” Williams says.
The number of bikes registered in Bike Index jumped from 306,760 at the end of 2019 to 548,099 in the following year.
Williams says that new riders might opt for a cable lock, which can be cut easily with basic hardware equipment. “People just really don’t know. They don’t know that their bike is vulnerable to theft,” she adds.
She also mentions that the organization has seen a spike in bike thefts from more residential areas, like locked garages or apartment buildings.
Kristen Buss, who currently attends medical school in Bloomington, Ind., has had two bikes stolen in less than six months from her back porch. Two months ago, there was an attempt to steal her boyfriend’s bike. The lock, which was a metal wiring with a padlock, was looped around the bike twice, and although it got cut marks on it, it held up well.
Buss feels discouraged from buying another bike for now but will consider it again when she moves to a new place where it’s possible to store the bike inside.
It also made her more reflective of personal security.
“It’s been more of a change in how we look at our whole apartment and not just our bikes,” she says.
Dan Henry, another D.C. resident, recently had his bike stolen from his apartment in the middle of the night. Initially, 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 out of your backyard. It’s another thing to have someone walk outside the door of the room where you sleep to steal your bike,” Henry says.
Stolen bikes are largely resold for profit. The person stealing the bike is unlikely to be using it as a mode of transport, according to Bryan Hance, director of Bike Index.
“It’s always about being better than the bike next to yours”
Loren Copsey, a co-owner of The Daily Rider, a local bike shop in D.C., mentioned that his store has been trying to keep up with the heightened demand since the pandemic encouraged more people to cycle for transportation and recreational activity.
In July 2020, his store was sold out.
“The majority of the customers that we saw in 2020 were definitely either new to biking or new to biking in a city, and that did require us to educate them about what they need to do to secure their bikes,” Copsey says.
In terms of bike security, Copsey recommends a bike lock typically at least 10% of the bike’s total cost. He also suggests that cyclists make assessments regarding 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 anything that is less secure than the lock that you’re using to secure it to,” Copsey says.
He also recommends looking for a sturdy bike rack, whenever possible, and that it is “in an environment where it would be obvious if someone would be using cutting tools on it.”
Although it might be tempting to park the bike in a secluded or less busy area, it’s a higher risk. Williams adds that a cable lock should go through both wheels of the bike and a U-Lock that locks up the frame and the rear wheel. But there is always a risk factor, even the most elaborate locks can be defeated.
“It’s always about being better than the bike next to yours. That’s just the unfortunate truth about it,” Copsey says.
Whether the recent enthusiasm towards cycling is short-lived or a long-term trend, Williams contends that better parking and bike security infrastructure could help prevent bike theft.
Copsey also mentions that it could lower the bar of entry for many new cyclists.
“It’s been really hard to find bike parking because obviously there’s not going to be a bike rack in front of every business that you might go to or on every block,” Williams says.
“But when you have so many people riding, then there certainly needs to be places to put your bike.”
Hadia Bakkar is an intern on NPR’s National Desk.