Brooklyn bike theft on the rise.

Bike Theft

It seems like the pettiest of petty crimes, and yet bike theft is widespread across America. Where are these bikes going? Who’s taking them? And what precautions can you take?

In Brooklyn, New York it’s not at all uncommon to see bikes with the wild plumage of peacocks or the disorienting zig-zags of a Zebra. True, NYC is full of animals, but this is not the work of a few plucky literalists. In fact, these markings function much as they do in nature: To draw attention, and to confuse the enemy.

Bikes are being stolen in the city that never sleeps. Well, actually, bikes are being stolen everywhere. It just so happens that New York City is the “bicycle theft capital” of America.

Bike Theft Brick Wall

It may be that bike thievery was always NY’s unique woe, but with the rise of carbon emissions and the subsequent wave of eco-friendly living – plus, let’s face it, the growing population of Brooklyn hipsters and their mobile fashion statements – the larcenous state of affairs seems to have spiraled out of control.

According to the FBI, annual bicycle theft accounts for 3.3 percent of all larceny theft in the United States. That’s over 200,000 bicycles stolen every year. However, Transportation Alternatives, a bicycle advocacy group based in New York City, estimates that four to five times that many thefts go unreported, which puts this number over a million.

I have to admit, as a Californian, that number is less surprising than the fact that such a thing as a “bicycle advocacy group” exists.

But that indifference is very much the issue at hand. In terms of crime, bike theft is a low priority for police. It’s one of the reasons bike burglary is so rampant and the public is so blase. In this sense bike thieves are like too many pigeons: Yeah, it’s a lot of crap to deal with but it’s New York, what are you going to do?

Bike theft bike wheels

What makes the issue a little more salient is the fact that for your typical cyclist, their bike is their only means of transportation in a very big, very crowded city. With a wide range in investment between $50 and $2,000, bicycles run the gamut from cheap necessity to absurd luxury item – and they’re all up for grabs. The National Bike Registry estimates stolen bikes add up to about $350 million per year – but the actual value is likely much higher.

So where are these bikes disappearing to? It depends on the professionalism of the thief. Priceonomics has a simple graph that explains the hierarchy of the bike fencing food chain. Your amateur thief sells the bike on the street for cents on the dollar; your middle-tier thief can unload one at a flea market for a little more cash; and your seasoned pro sells the bike online, usually in a different city, or breaks it down for parts.

But of course that begs the question, how much is a stolen bike really worth? Not much, actually, but it constitutes one of the “four commodities of the street.” This is a term used by law enforcement for cash, drugs, sex and bicycles – any of which can be exchanged for the other. Gives a whole new meaning to the term “ridesharing.”

How to Protect Your Bike

Biking Brooklyn

As of 2010, there were about 200,000 people biking in New York City every day, with the number rising all the time. Consequently, between 2011 and 2012, bike theft increased by 25 percent. With so many bikes out there, it’s impossible to stop the crime, but there are methods of prevention. has some simple but significant Dos and Don’ts for cyclists:

Do lock up your bike

Don’t lock it up by just one wheel

Do secure both wheels or take the other with you

Don’t secure them to a signpost with no sign on top

Do use two locks

Don’t use the same type of locks

Do secure your seat

Brooklyn Bike

Remember, your bike thief is a cunning animal. Do not underestimate him. Using different kinds of locks will force him to use more tools and thus risk looking more conspicuous. Your average thief will move along when they see a tightly secured bike, but a professional can dismantle a traffic sign, pull the bike over the pole and have your baby spray-painted and packed off to another county in no time.

Avail yourself of the digital tools out there, such as @bikewatchNYC. As Slate’s Jody Rosen discovered, Twitter can be an invaluable tool for triangulating a stolen bike.

And beware of scams. Several denizens of Park Slope received the same note from a good Samaritan claiming to have rescued their bikes from thieves. Turns out, the guy was just holding them for ransom.

[images sourced via bicycle boulevardsaboutcambridgerideons and theguardian]