Free Ride

Bike Theft in DC

It’s not the kind of thing you forget. On a chilly winter night six years ago, I rode my bike to Metro Center with plans to hear a band in Clarendon. Using a Kryptonite lock I secured my trusty metal steed to a parking meter in front of the station and headed down to the Metro.

That was around 8 p.m. Four hours later I emerged from underground and the bike was gone.

I did a double take, and then a double think. Did I really leave the bike at this exact corner? But a cursory investigation and rehashing of my earlier actions confirmed it: the bike had been there, and now it was gone. The serviceable brown Raleigh had been stolen, never to be heard from again.

But to be honest, I count myself lucky. Despite riding my bike all over town on a daily basis, I’ve been largely unscathed by theft since that night in 2007. Talk to other dedicated riders and you’re likely to hear a litany of stolen bike stories.

A Growing Trend

The FBI estimates that over 200,000 bicycles were stolen nationwide in 2010. But those are simply the documented thefts; only a percentage of folks call the cops when they discover their bike is gone (I didn’t even consider it). Which means the real number could be four or five times higher. New York City alone, according to bicycle advocacy groups there, sees 75,000-100,000 bike thefts per year. 

Getting numbers for DC is tricky. Theft data is not easily categorized by stolen property type, which makes isolating cases of bicycle theft a time consuming business. Fortunately, the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) cooperated with a request for information from this reporter. They furnished preliminary numbers for bike thefts, arrests of bike thieves and also those fencing stolen bikes for 2011 and 2012.

The data demonstrates that bike theft is a major problem in the city’s western wards. The First District comprising Capitol Hill, Southwest and parts of the Penn Quarter, the Second District comprising the suburban areas east of Rock Creek and the Third District comprising the central neighborhoods of U Street, Dupont, Logan and Columbia Heights compete for most stolen bikes.

The reports of stolen bikes fell marginally from 1835 in 2011 to 1797 in 2012. Arrests for bike theft increased from 65 in 2011 to 98 in 2012. Arrests for receiving stolen bikes, so-called ‘fencing,’ increased from 32 in 2011 to 36 in 2012.

MPD’s First District Commander, Daniel Hickson, describes bike theft as a “significant issue” and says his team gets calls about stolen bikes a few times a week.

And biking is clearly up around the city. The DC Department of Transportation’s December “bike count,” in which staffers tally the number of bikers at various locations around town, showed a 175 percent increase in peak-hour ridership between 2004 and 2012. Increased biking means, of course, more bikes and more opportunity for theft.

“Every day, people come in and say their bike was stolen,” commented Denise D’Amour, co-owner of Capitol Hill Bikes on Barracks Row. D’Amour has her own tale: her bicycle disappeared while she was attending the inauguration of the DC Bicycle Advisory Council at Judiciary Square.

Adrian Fenty had two bikes stolen out of his garage while he was mayor. Councilmember Mary Cheh was the victim of bike theft. And of course, it’s all over the internet: a quick Google search for “stolen bikes DC” turns up dozens of personal stories and several websites cataloguing recently stolen cycles.

So what do the MPD’s numbers tell us? Firstly, given anecdotal evidence, bike theft appears to be a significantly underreported crime. Secondly, the MPD arrests very few bicycle thieves or fences.

Bicycle theft is a clearly a major quality of life crime. So, why are there so few arrests?

The US Attorney is not interested in prosecuting bicycle theft, stated one DC Council source. Very few of the cases that the MPD brings to them are pursued. As a result, the police are reluctant to waste time chasing bike thieves.

This writer was unable to obtain any data on the prosecution of bike related arrests from the US Attorney. “We do not keep track of our theft cases in this manner,” stated spokesperson William Miller.

Stolen bikes’ destination?

It’s safe to guess that thousands of DC bikes are ripped off each year. But what’s still unknown is where they wind up. I’ve wondered that ever since losing my own bike. Despite keeping a keen eye out for it, I never spotted it.

My half-hearted hunch was that DC’s hot bikes get shipped to Baltimore, and Charm City’s black market cycles come here. But upon asking around, I found that most in-the-know folks think the city’s stolen bicycles remain here and get resold pretty quickly. “The majority of [stolen] bikes are just circulated on the street in the informal economy,” Loren Copsey, co-owner of H Street NE’s Daily Rider store (and a former police officer), told me. “If you walk on H Street for long enough, someone will walk by and ask if you want to buy a bike.”

Copsey said he sees it regularly. Someone will poke their head into his shop and ask if he wants to purchase their cycle. “We ask, ‘What kind of bike is it?’ If you have to look down and see what kind it is, it’s probably not yours,” he said. Resale prices are invariably low. Most thieves, he said, have no idea of the vehicle’s market price. “The street value of a bike is $25-$40, no matter how high-end the bike is. The bike is a means of transportation, nothing more.”

Greg Billing, advocacy coordinator for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA), agreed. “What we’ve heard is that most bikes are sold very quickly,” he said. “It’s normally a crime of opportunity; the bikes are usually staying nearby.”

Investigating for Myself: Pawnshops, Craigslist and DC’s Bike Messengers

It makes sense, but something doesn’t ring true to me. Maybe it’s because I’ve lived in the District for a decade and have never, ever been offered a cut-rate bike on the street. And aside from one-on-one transactions, I can’t see where the thieves would dump the hot vehicles. After all, the city’s bike shops can’t sell used cycles without a pawn license, which most don’t have.

Pawnshops themselves aren’t a great option, either. Oh, they see the bikes. “About three times a day, people come in trying to sell them,” said David Brown, an employee at 14th Street NW’s Crown Pawnbrokers, told me. But the store’s owners don’t accept secondhand bicycles of any sort. Those pawnshops that do take bikes are required to report each one to the police, who run the vehicle’s details through a database of stolen bicycles.

Eastern Market’s weekend flea market, meanwhile, stopped accepting bicycle vendors a couple of years ago. And the wild-and-woolly Shaw flea market at 9th and U streets NW doesn’t exist anymore. That’s two fewer options right there.

Of course, the most obvious outlet for anything used is Craigslist, and there are several well-publicized stories of DC residents finding their stolen bikes there. On any given day there might be hundreds of used bikes listed for sale. But very few are priced at the outrageously low rates Copsey referred to – and most include details about the vehicle that you’d imagine only a former owner would know.

I was not the only one curious, Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells, an avid cyclist himself, often wondered what became of all those stolen bikes. During his unfortunately brief tenure as head of the DC Council’s Committee on Transportation and Public Works, Wells designed and funded a groundbreaking partnership between MPD and DDOT designed to find answer to the stolen bike conundrum. This initiative involved leaving “bait bikes” – leaving GPS-tagged bicycles un- or under-locked in public.

The city’s police officers, at least, don’t seem to think Craigslist is a major outlet for stolen bicycles. In August 2012, the “bait bikes” scheme had made 24 arrests by early January. “No suspect has debriefed [us] about Craigslist,” wrote assistant police chief Diane Groomes in an email. “Most appear to be used by suspect.”

Recently, with the aid of a victim, the MPD successfully arrested a suspect for fencing a stolen bike on Craig’s List. So, the picture remains muddy.

But the info is far from definitive. Billing, from WABA, had recommended I talk to bike couriers if I wanted more details, so I headed downtown to seek out the ragtag band of dudes who make their living by riding all day. Turned out, none of them had much in the way of news. Oh, sure: they all had stories of getting their rides ripped off at some point. And many said they’d been offered cycles they assumed had been stolen. “Guys come through here all the time selling [secondhand] bikes,” said Rodger, who was hanging out at 18th and L Street and declined to give his last name. He said that while messengers might buy components from the sellers, they generally try to avoid purchasing cycles they think are stolen.

By and large, the messengers thought that most of the stolen cycles remain in the District. A few, however, repeated a rumor I’d come across. “I’ve heard that people come down from New York with a van every spring” and steal bikes, said Tony Azzouzi; several of his colleagues agreed. 

Aha! So perhaps my DC-Baltimore bike-swap theory wasn’t too far off after all. Was it possible that my little brown Raleigh had been shipped off to the Big Apple? But rumors are rumors; if I wanted to learn more about where my bike – and the thousands of others stolen this past year – had gone, I’d have to dig further.

Bike Theft Part 2 will appear in the April issue of the Hill Rag.