Finding a Spoke in the Stack

BikeIndex.org Helps Combat Rampant DC Bike Theft

A map on map.bikewise.org of the 100 most recent bicycle thefts reported on BikeIndex in each mapped area. This shows Washington DC. (Photo: map.bikewise.org)

In the first week of October an ad asking $300 for a Surly Long Haul Trucker bicycle in DC popped up on the website OfferUp. It looked clean, and the seller, “Jay,” listed it as having “normal wear” for a used bike.

One problem: that bike retails at nearly $2,000.

Local DC biker Chris Olin and BikeIndex.org’s Bryan Hance saw the ad and knew the seller had stolen it. No one resells a $2,000 bike for $300. The two cross-referenced it with BikeIndex’s international database of registered bikes and located the owner, a woman in Switzerland. Olin worked with Metro Transit Police to recover the bike and arrest the seller within a few days of the discovery. 

DC bicyclists see thousands of bikes stolen each year. The Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) doesn’t track bike thefts specifically, but said since 2013 nearly 6,000 people have reported a bicycle stolen in the District. That doesn’t include the number of bikes people don’t report as stolen or thefts that enter the MPD database as just “theft.”

With several free-form resale sites like OfferUp and Craigslist, police face a challenge of identifying which of the hundreds of bicycles is stolen. But registries like BikeIndex have changed the way owners, bike shops, and police can combat the illegal sales, said Hance.

“We are finding a lot of police agencies that use us as the second option when they reach a really sketchy bike situation,” Hance said. “A guy gets robbed on Monday night, puts up the stolen bike on BikeIndex on Tuesday – police cross-reference before it even hits their database.”

Tracking Thieves, Avoiding Theft

MPD uses a bait bike program to lure thieves and catch them in the act, said Capt. Mark Beach. The area surrounding Nationals Stadium is a hotspot for thefts. But when it comes to tracking bikes, a lack of visual identifiers and limited details in registration databases present a challenge for catching and recovering. “If we have a stolen car … we have different measures we can take,” Beach said. “One is to upload the license plate into the system.”

Sites like OfferUp are dangerous for buyers and sellers because criminals can target users for thefts or burglaries, he said. Some thieves work in rings, stealing and reselling, but many work ad hoc, taking loose wheels or bikes they see around the District.

MPD officers give residents tips and information on how to identify stolen bikes and protect their own property, Beach said. From Listservs to public events, officers want people to lock up, register, and beware of leaving bicycles outside. But sometimes that’s not enough.

For example, BikeIndex and the National Bike Registry can help identify stolen bikes, but while anyone can use BikeIndex, only police can see reports on the national registry, said M. Loren Copsey, co-owner of The Daily Rider (1108 H St. NE). Locals often turn to the DC NOVA MD Area Lost & Stolen Bicycles Facebook group to post information about stolen bikes in hopes someone other than the police may spot it. 

Copsey sees more and more thefts as ridership in the District increases, despite efforts to catch thieves. “I get emails and calls about bikes being stolen from a backyard or bike rack,” he said. “It’s not just bikes that are getting stolen. It’s wheels, seats, anything easy to remove. They aren’t locked down.”

He suggests several tips to lock down a bike:

  • Invest in a good U-Lock or key bolt to lock to a rack (both front and back wheels).
  • Consider PitLocks for locking down the spokes on the wheels.
  • Get a cable lock to secure the seat to the post.
  • Beware thieves that take cargo racks, beneath the seat packs and lights.

Prevention tips and education efforts from police help, but growing numbers of riders call for more effort to curb the common crime, Copsey said.

Keeping Up with the Growing Demand

Peak hour cycling commuters in DC increased by more than 200 percent between 2000 and 2012, according to a 2012 American Community Survey. With at least 57 miles of newly constructed bike lanes, three miles of cycle tracks, and 10 miles of multi-use trails, the District and Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Vision Zero transportation plan put the city on track to meet a growing demand for infrastructure to support bicycle commuters.

Those new commuters shouldn’t fear losing their bicycles to theft, said Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen. “As someone who has had a pair of bicycles stolen myself, I absolutely understand the damage done when a theft occurs,” Allen said. “You should be able to have confidence that your bike will be there in the morning.”

Police face a challenge finding evidence of theft, though. “You can’t charge someone with theft of a bicycle because you find them in possession of it later,” Allen said. “You have to have proof of the actual theft.” Theft is a multi-variable problem that needs to be addressed, he said.

At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, also a cyclist, agrees. She suggested a few solutions the District can consider: more secure bike racks and U frames; apartment buildings with bike parking; zoning codes requiring more bike parking; and legislation to simplify resale markets and offer credible sellers for locals.

A Call for Better Police Methods

Metro transit stations are a hotbed for theft, said Copsey. His wife had her bike seat stolen outside Union Station, and numerous Daily Rider customers report thefts at stations. If Metro would consider placing bike lock stations in more visible areas where officers can easily monitor suspicious behavior, he thinks this would reduce the number of opportunity thefts. “[Union Station managers] put the bike racks in an inconvenient, not highly visible area,” Copsey said. “People hang out there all day and watch for bikes to come through and take what they want.”

With three bicycles stolen in 10 years, theft has become the norm for Tamara Evans, the advocacy director for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA). One was stolen outside a Whole Foods grocery and two from inside of her house. Police came to take her report, but the officer took few notes, she said. “It was clear they weren’t going to investigate,” Evans said. “I’m a perfect example of why there’s no consequence.”

She’s not alone in the trend of multiple thefts. If limited resources hinder police from catching thieves, the lucrative market will continue to thrive, she said.

WABA tells bicyclists to beware phony Craigslist ads that sell high-quality bikes for $200. If fewer people buy those bikes, the demand may fall, Evans said. The group also pushes for employers to provide locked storage areas for commuters and safer bike zones in parking garages.

David Cranor, writer of TheWashCycle blog and local bicycle activist, agrees with WABA’s efforts but said police need to improve their tracking and reporting data. “I think a lot of people quit biking when their bikes get stolen,” Cranor said. “I have had two bikes stolen. Just this last month, my kids had their bikes stolen off the front porch.” Even if police do recover a bicycle, the limited data they collect often keeps them from finding the rightful owner, he said.

Beach said officers use details like wheel type, distinct markings, serial numbers, and the location where the bike was discovered to identify the owner. Some recovered bikes make it on the MPD recovered bikes Flickr account. If no one claims them, they eventually go to the property crimes division and out for auction. That’s where Bryan Hance and BikeIndex hope to make a difference.

BikeIndex to the Rescue?

“An observer downtown saw my bicycle was listed on Bike Index and called the Portland Bureau of Police, who made the arrest and released my bicycle to me :).” – 2010 Bianchi ISEO bicycle recovered, Sept. 2, 2016

“I had three different people contact me about this online sale based on my Bike Index listing ... The Boston police asked me to set up a meeting with the online seller. They went with me, verified the serial number, and returned my bicycle.” – 2016 All City Space Horse bicycle recovered, Sept. 23, 2016

“Recovered via Web sleuthing (stolen bike posted on OfferUpNow) and partnership with the Portland Bike Theft Task Force.” – 2010 Gary Fisher bicycle recovered, Sept. 6, 2016

These are a few examples of recovery reports Hance posts every month to BikeIndex.org from his office in Portland, Ore. Police in major cities like Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, and Portland have turned to BikeIndex for help identifying stolen bicycles since the registry launched in 2004. Unlike police reports, the registry lets users document multiple photos, serial numbers, color, distinct stickers or markings, and specific derailleurs or other custom bike parts.

Hance and his team started growing their presence in DC about six months ago, and work with bike shops like the Daily Rider. The more people who register in the region, the better chance of recovery, he said. And it costs cyclists nothing. The company is currently transitioning to nonprofit 501(c)(3) status. “We actually let the community step up and do something about [theft],” Hance said. “You can participate in this. We can give you the tools to combat this theft in your own area.”

With the help of locals like Olin, Hance can return bikes to their owners across the country. Or across the world, as in the case of the woman from Switzerland who biked from the West Coast to the East, only to have her bike stolen in DC last June.

“It’s like pulling needles out of haystacks,” Hance said. “People just light up when we tell them, You remember that bike you rode across the country on? We found it.” 

The ad for the stolen bicycle of the woman in Switzerland that Chris Olin and Bryan Hance found in early October. (Photo: OfferUp webpage)