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A chain reaction: We need to talk about bike theft

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SEPTEMBER 10, 2022

taring into the abyss, I sit on my bed and listen to “As It Was” by Harry Styles on repeat, reflecting on times when it would take about two replays of the song until I reached campus on my trusty bike. Now I use my feet instead of wheels, still actively mourning, while on my 20-minute commute to class. More than 2 million bikes are stolen every year in the United States — which means that within the duration of me listening to “As It Was” only once, about five bikes were taken from their owners. As of today, two of those stolen bikes belong to me.

Understandably, my pandemic-born affinity for biking is not unique: COVID-19 encouraged a spike in bike sales, as more and more people found biking to be a lower-risk mode of transportation. Additionally, for students doing online school throughout the past two years, long quarantine periods in single-occupancy dorm rooms were once the norm on campus, with little else to do than go on walks to the dining hall and back. For myself, it was during these times that investing in a bike enabled me to explore all parts of Berkeley on my own terms, with the freedom to embark on long night rides around town, or to do mock rounds of what my schedule would have been if classes were in person. 

Whatever makes your bike valuable to you — whether it be an escape outdoors or a reliable form of transport — inevitably makes it valuable to another category of individuals too: thieves.

Whatever makes your bike valuable to you — whether it be an escape outdoors or a reliable form of transport — inevitably makes it valuable to another category of individuals too: thieves. Of active bike owners, roughly half of us have gone to take our bikes from their parking spots, only to find that all that remained of the vehicle was the severed shell of a U-lock and our shattered pride. In my case, despite hours of toiling with reporting the theft and scouring the internet for new bike sale offers, I had no luck in finding any leads or comfort. And yet, after moving on and being gifted a replacement bike a few weeks later, it took only four months for me to find myself in the same predicament, walking outside to my regular parking spot and halting in my tracks upon finding a broken lock and nothing else. Chances are, this story is likely familiar to you — so what (besides listening to sad pop music) can we do about it?

An often underrated form of prevention is bike registration. Though a mere 5% of stolen bikes are returned to their owners, it is worth noting that 2 in 3 of the bikes that are recovered were registered. You can register your bike for free with the UC Police Department (though an in-person appointment is required) and with Bike Index, a nonprofit bike registry accessible online. It is critical to acknowledge that low rates of bike registration contribute to the chronic underreporting of bike theft, which results in inadequate investment in finding solutions for this issue. As a result of underreporting, many police departments do not allocate the appropriate resources to bike theft prevention and response, which perpetuates cycles of theft and illegal resale. 

Increasing parking security is another tactic you can use to directly deter thieves. As a general rule, a National Public Radio article from last year advises the purchase of one cable (to secure the wheels) and one U-lock (for locking the frame, rear wheel and bike rack), which together should come out to be 10% of the bike’s worth. The article also emphasizes the importance of bike parking locations, expressing that those in highly visible areas with designated bike racks (as opposed to fences, street signs, etc.) are the most secure. In the case that such locations are scarce, UC Berkeley offers free Secure Bike Cages at select campus facilities. While not available for long-term storage, these covered cages provide extra parking security for quick trips and are accessible via Cal 1 Card. 

All things considered, low recovery rates may still make it tempting to shrug off these incidents as targeted attacks with no larger repercussions or hope for reparations. However, the act of bike theft is often the first in a cascade of subsequent crimes. Many perpetrators continue to commit crimes with the aid of the bikes they steal, with a quarter of stolen bikes reported to be implicated in secondary crimes; combined with bike theft losses, these cost the United States a staggering $1 billion in damages per year. Additionally, as underground markets for stolen bikes flourish, local businesses bear the brunt of lost revenue. Bike theft also has negative environmental impacts, with around 7% of bike theft victims choosing not to purchase a replacement bike, increasing reliance on less environmentally friendly transportation alternatives. 

More than a quarter of individuals whose bikes have been stolen ride less after the incident, and for those who do continue riding, 20% wearily purchase a cheaper replacement bike. For those who choose a similar path, being informed about repair services and companies who are familiar with the problem of theft is essential. BicyCAL, located on lower Sproul, is a student-run volunteer bike repair shop that charges only for parts, and aims to teach you the fundamentals of bike maintenance while walking you through necessary repairs — needless to say, I regret wearing white pants to my first visit. Other local establishments around the city are also ready and willing to help. The Missing Link Bicycle Cooperative is one example of a Berkeley staple that you can contact for complicated and simple repairs alike. They also advertise missing bike flyers, and offer both comforting condolences and strategies for improving bike lock security to better combat future theft attempts.

If you feel dejected as a victim of bike theft, you are not alone. Though upsetting that bike theft is so prevalent in our community, organizations like these serve as reminders of the generosity and commitment to cycling that endure. Our community’s cycling culture deserves celebrating and infrastructural support, whether that entails expanding the bike cage system or investing in accessible public bike access in general. And — if nothing else — these collective experiences (among the many cyclists who persist) prove that while losing a bike to theft is almost inevitable, resilience is not something that can be stolen. 

Contact Sonoma Carlos at [email protected].

SEPTEMBER 10, 2022

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