21 April 2017

Why Do Most Bike Thieves Get Away With It?

In today's Los Angeles Times, an editorial writer asked the question on the minds of many cyclists:

"Why are cities allowing bicycle theft to go virtually unpunished?"

The editorial points out something that most of us already know:  Bike theft simply isn't a high priority, if it's a priority at all, for most police departments.  There are a variety of reasons, valid or not, for this.  One is that police tend to concentrate on high-profile, high-value crimes.  So a stolen Maserati gets more attention than a missing Masi, possibly because insurance companies and lawyers are likely to have similar priorities.  

Another reason might be one a police officer expressed to me:  "Well, if you have a good lock and insurance policy, you can replace your bike."  This is true, up to a point:  Most policies--whether from lock makers or insurance companies, have deductibles.  But, even if a bike's owner is reimbursed for its full value, he or she may not be able to replace the stolen bike with another like it, especially if it is a custom or discontinued model. 

Even if a cyclist is reimbursed for the full price he or she paid for the bike, that amount of money probably won't buy as good a bike as the one that was taken, especially if the bike is more than a couple of years old.   And, of course, the deductibles and depreciation mean that the cyclist is likely to get considerably less than he or she paid for the bike.

From Priceconomics

What that means is that the newly-bikeless rider will buy a lower-quality bike than the one that was stolen--that is, if he or she buys another bike at all.  The LA Times editorial points out that according to one study, 7 percent of bike-theft victims in Montreal never replace their bikes.

The article makes a point that for many cyclists (such as yours truly), not having a bike is not merely an inconvenience.  An increasing number of people, mainly in cities, are depending on their bikes for everyday transportation.   Most of us aren't rich:  According to a Federal government survey cited in the editorial, the people most likely to cycle (or, for that matter, walk) to work, school or errands--or simply to get around--are those with household incomes of less than $10,000 a year.  That group of people is likely to include, in addition to low-wage workers, the unemployed, retirees and students.  

Also in that group  are many who make their livings on their bicycles.  For a year, I was one.  In nearly every city--and in some suburban and even rural areas--there is an army of folks who deliver everything from documents to dim sum on their wheels.  For them, losing their bikes is catastrophic.

And they, as often as not, are the least able to afford to buy another bike of any kind.  In much the same way that Kim Kardashian being robbed of 10 million dollars' worth of jewelry is not going to affect her lifestyle as much as the average person is affected by losing the watch he or she wears every day, the guy (or woman) who loses a Porsche can more easily afford to replace it than the delivery person who purchased a Peugeot U-08 from a tag sale.

That, I believe, might be the most important "take away" from that L.A. Times editorial.  It may be that law enforcement authorities still see bicyclists losing their bikes as kids losing their toys but someone whose luxury sports car is stolen as the victim of a "real" crime.  Unless that changes, bike theft will be a mostly-unsolved crime and bike thefts will continue to be under-reported.


  1. How many people don't even bother to report a theft because it is a complete waste of time?

    1. Philip, it is worse than a complete waste! The police love to collect reports of crimes they have no interest in solving only to justify their existence but it has the downside of increasing insurance rates in places where crimes ave been reported.

    2. Maybe Justine will do a piece on tracking devices with her usual thoroughness. Probably better than calling the cops eh? At least if you can tell them where the bike is you done 90% of the work for them.

  2. Phillip and Coline--If my experience is any indication, reporting a bike theft is indeed a waste of time, except for insurance purposes. At least, if you have that police report, you can make your claim.

    Tracking devices? Interesting idea.

  3. i believe that in most cities, property crimes such as burglary and theft get no attention beyond the police asking, "did you have a lock,do you have insurance?"
    A recent exception in the Chicago suburbs was when the local police staked out a commuter rail station and followed the thieves to a garage in the city where they'd stored about 150 high-end bikes. Pictures of the bikes were posted on line. i'm not sure how many went back to their owners. The thieves faced serious time for grand theft. Very rare indeed.
    Many stolen bikes get recovered at some of the area flea markets, but if the police get involved, the bikes wind up in an evidence locker for months. The usual solution is the owner gets the bike back and the seller packs up the remainders and comes back to the flea market the next week.

  4. Mike--That case is indeed an exception, not only for Chicago.

    Here in NYC, the "word on the street" was that if your bike was stolen, you should go to St. Mark's Place around Second Avenue at night. There, thieves (often drug addicts) would try to sell the bikes they'd lifted. Very often, restaurants, diners and other businesses that offered delivery would go to St. Mark's in search of bikes for their employees. So, I imagine, would some unscrupulous folks who simply wanted to get a pair of wheels on the cheap.