The Issue of Bike Theft in L.A. Goes Mainstream

2_11_10_wyoming.jpgNow THAT's vigilantiasm. Photo: Prawnpie/Flickr

As cycling grows more and more popular, both in Los Angeles and across the country, the problem with bike thieves also grows.  All of a sudden, those bicycles that were safe chained to a poll with a U-Lock are easy targets for thieves instead of safe.  In response to growing theft, many cyclists end up resorting to vigilante tactics in response.  There's been a strong debate in the bicycling community on this issue, I was part of a debate on Bike Talk back in December, and it's been a hot topic on blogs and message boards for a long-time before that.

A strong article in today's Times, which first appeared on their LA Now blog yesterday, took a look at the bike theft issue and as a result a lot of other media outlets have picked up on it.  The article breaks down the issue into three parts: that bike thefts have risen 29% in Los Angeles in 2009, that segments of the community are resorting to vigilantism, and that bike facilities in Los Angeles can be so lacking that you're not always safe just locking your bike.  Of course, when the paper of record covers a story, it tends to be picked up by other media outlets for the next news cycle.

First, that theft is rising is hardly news to hard core cyclists, but this story continues a trend of casting cyclists in a more sympathetic light in the media.  Since the start of 2010, there have already been two news cycles that have highlighted real issues faced by cyclists: the coverage of Councilman Rosendahl's efforts to pass an "anti-harassment" ordinance for cyclists and the coverage of the Backbone Bikeway Network.  Part of the reason for the coverage has been the outspoken response of the cycling community and part has been a media that is beginning to understand that there's a lot more to the cycling community than hippies and Critical Mass; two groups that don't receive regular, sympathetic coverage in the mainstream press.

While the LAPD's statistic on the increase in bike thefts is a little eye-popping, just as with the hit and run stats from last week, take them with a grain of salt.  Because bike theft is both under-reported and under-recorded, it's hard to get an exact fix on the real statistic.  However, it is undeniable that the issue is becoming a larger one.

Second, is the issue of vigilantism. The amusing story told in the Times story about a group that chased after some high school bike thieves and recovered the bikes and stripped down the thieves might be a great newspaper story, but it also leads to headlines such as: "Bike Messengers Turn to Vigilantism In Theft-Ridden Lost Angeles."

What is the proper response of cyclists when they see a theft occurring?  The LAPD certainly would prefer that you report the theft and let them do their jobs, but to say that catching bike thieves hasn't historically been a priority isn't an understatement.  However, things are getting better as the LACBC reported in a blog post last week, after a series of meetings late last year put on by Echo Park Cycles and some other bike groups.

While the "report and wait" response might be what the powers that be want you to do, and is probably the safest thing to do, I'm not going to talk down efforts of cyclists to recover their bikes nor the effort of friends to chase after a friend's bike.  My only advice is to be careful, you never know what those bike thieves might be carrying besides the tools to steal a bike.

Last is the issue of bike facilities in Los Angeles.  Poorly located and poorly secured bike parking makes it easy for thieves and vandals to target bicycles.  Parking should be located near the entrance in a well-traversed area, the opposite of the parking for City Hall and other city buildings such as LAPD headquarters and, most obviously, the parking needs to be secured.  Hiding the bike parking out of the way leads to vandalism and theft.  On "Bike to Work Day" in 2008 Enci Box, on the first day I ever met her, actually pulled the city placed bike rack I had my bike locked to out of the ground to make the point.  Let's just say she wasn't exactly straining when she did so.  You can follow the bike locking suggestions of Streetfilms' Hal and Kerry to the letter, but if a thief can pull the rack out of the ground, it's pretty useless effort.

So what's the solution?  A re-commitment from the city, which often follows stories in the Times, to provide safe and secure bike parking would be a start, empowering cyclists to keep their own bikes safe.  The second step would be to treat the theft of bicycles as seriously as one does grand theft auto at the law enforcement level.  After all, for many cyclists, their bike is their only means of transportation.