John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Filmmaker Casey Neistat explains why he decided to reenact his famous 2005 bike-thieving experiment.
In 2005, pissed that thieves kept taking his bicycles, Casey Neistat of HBO fame decided to see if the average New Yorker would stop him from stealing a bike locked on the street. So armed with a hammer, hacksaw, bolt cutters and a spark-shooting angle grinder, he ripped off his own ride in public all across the city, practically begging to be caught.
It didn't work. One guy even gave pointers on breaking the lock, telling Neistat to use vice grips instead of a hammer and spike. (See that video below, filmed by Casey's brother, Van.)
The results of this experiment were fascinating, hilarious but most of all supremely annoying. What the heck is wrong with New Yorkers that they'd let this larceny go on right under their noses? Curious to see if anything's changed since 2005, Neistat recently reenacted his thieving campaign for an op-ed in The New York Times. The video suggests that the attitude of today's Manhattanites toward wanton theft of private property has improved a little, but not much.
I posed a few questions to Neistat on why he replicated his experiment and what he learned from it. Here's what he had to say, slightly edited for clarity:
Have you had any bikes stolen since 2005?
Let me just think... uhm, yes, yes I have. My last six gear was stolen. It was a $300 bike, the shittiest six gear you could buy. I had it for 11 months before it was stolen. It was taken in 2009, in front of my office in downtown Manhattan. It was in the same spot where I lock my bike every day.
Why did you want to revisit your stealing stunt?
After doing the bike lane film last summer, it kind of forced me to consider cycling in the city. That and the fact that New York had done a few media campaigns that gave positive attention to cyclists. New York City now is an entirely different place for cyclists than it was 7 years ago. That's apparent in riding the in city just by the sheer quantity of cyclists. I wanted to see if that has transcended to the security of bikes in the city.
In 2005, the question was, "Would anybody stop me?" In the new film I wanted to see, "What will it take for people to stop me?"
About the not-stopping-you part: Could New Yorkers just not realize that you're trying to heist a bike?
Absolutely. I think that's what everyone loves about New York City: how much people mind their own business. That's a great thing when trying to live in a city. But it's a disparaging thing when it comes to something like bike theft.
For the ones who did notice you stealing the bike yet did nothing, why do you think they let it happen?
I don't know. I can tell you for the first three attempts, with a hacksaw, crowbar and bolt cutters, nobody batted an eye. The fourth attempt, where I was using an angle grinder in an incredibly crowded area, a couple of concerned citizens stopped to ask if it was my bike before the police came. I made as much noise and brought as much attention to myself to see if people would care, but it took an unreasonable and deliberate amount of energy to attract what I see as an appropriate response from law enforcement.
How'd the cops handle the situation?
They first told me to put the weapon down, which was a little bit nerve-racking. Once I explained what I was doing, they were a little sweet about it. But all five of them said they hadn't caught a bike thief. (Ed: Ever.)
It's tough to be a backseat driver. I think that bike theft is indicative of a lot of quality-of-life crimes in city. I don't know if it's the most important one, but it happens to be the one that affects me the most. I think the police could do a handful of sting operations. That way they'd have a defense like, "We caught X amount of bike thieves." I think that would offer some level of reassurance.
Where do you keep your bike when you're not riding?
When I'm in Connecticut, I just put the bike in the garage. But in New York City I carry it up 4 flights of steps. I have to have it in my apartment; to me that's the only foolproof option, the only way I'll wake up in morning and know my bike is where I left it.
What's the most frustrating thing about bicycle thievery?
I think there are two kinds people: those who bike and everybody else. Biking requires such a major commitment. I carry a 24-pound bike up four flights, day in and day out. I'm risking my physical wellbeing by riding in the city and in return I'm getting all of the benefits of riding a bike. So when somebody takes it, it's not just losing a physical possession. It's losing all of that – that entire part of you is just gone.
What do you think people should do when they see somebody stealing a bike?
Me, I'd confront them, because I am a physically competent man/just don't give a shit. Someone who's not willing or interested in having a confrontation should take a picture with a cellphone and call the cops. If it is a crowded area, I'd like to think the cops would respond in an appropriate window of time.
Casey Neistat steals his bike in 2005...
...and recovers his brother's bike from a gang of "thugs" after it was stolen the same year: