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A survey of Montreal riders finds that half of all active cyclists have their bikes stolen, and only 2.4 percent are recovered.

One of the biggest problems with stopping city bike theft is that cities don't even understand the extent of the problem. Police departments often consider the incidents a low priority and fail to pursue thieves, which in turn discourages riders from reporting later incidents. Great as cities know the problem to be, then, the likely reality is that it's much greater.

Police departments certainly have more severe crimes to address than bike theft, but that doesn't mean the problem is trivial. The general tendency to overlook the problem threatens to undermine public investments in bike infrastructure and the viability of bike-share programs, as well as city mobility more broadly. If people had their cars stolen as often as their bikes — cyclists are four times as likely as drivers to be victims of vehicle theft — you have to imagine cities would take stronger action.

"Whereas it is usually urban and transport planners who are in charge of planning a city’s active transportation network and infrastructure, it is often the police who are in charge of investigating bicycle theft," says Dea van Lierop, who's been studying the issue at McGill University. "For the police, bicycle theft simply not always is a priority crime."

Recently, Van Lierop and colleagues conducted a survey of Montreal residents to better understand for the bike theft problem. Their results, based on nearly 2,000 responses from cyclists, are set for publication in the International Journal of Sustainable Transportation. We've combed the paper to identify the most important — and, from a perspective of urban mobility, most depressing — statistics.

About half of all active cyclists have their bikes stolen. This figure has been reported before, but it bears repeating: city cyclists are a mere coin flip away from being victims of bike theft. In a sense, even that stat doesn't capture the problem, since some cyclists have their bikes stolen more than once. The McGill researchers found that the 961 respondents who were bike-theft victims had a total of 1,890 bikes stolen.

Few riders report bike theft, and fewer register their bikes. The Montreal survey found that roughly 36 percent of riders reported the theft, and only 8.5 percent of victims had their bikes registered at the time. Those figures largely reflect a general belief that the police won't do anything anyway. Still, reporting the incident does seem to matter in terms of one's chance for recovery: two thirds of recovered bikes were reported.

But only 2.4 percent of stolen bikes were recovered. A sad, sad figure. Even sadder: 22 stolen bikes were reported stolen to police, had been registered before their theft, and had been photographed to help show ownership, according to the Montreal survey. None were recovered.

Year-round cyclists are 90 percent more likely than others to have a bike stolen. The more you take your bike onto a street, the more chances it has of being stolen. That's no surprise, but the figure itself is alarming: everyday riders are 90 percent more likely to be a theft victim than seasonal or occasional riders. As for the timing of the incidents, theft rates peak in July and decline the rest of the year. In other words, there's a huge disincentive to ride at the very moment it's most appealing to ride. 

The crime occurs closer to home than cyclists believe. The Montreal survey asked cyclists where they felt bike theft occurred most often and compared those responses to actual theft geography. While riders think thefts occur about 3.5 miles from home, they actually occur much closer — about 2 miles. This gap between perceived and actual theft location could lead riders to be less careful locking their bikes than they should be at times, especially in their own neighborhoods.

Only 37 percent of cyclists are willing to pay for better parking. Cities have a responsibility to provide bike parking just as they delegate street space for car parking, but they also have an incentive to charge the proper price for it. This could be a problem, however, as only 37 percent or cyclists were willing to pay for parking in the Montreal survey. Two in five opponents cited cost, while one in five didn't want to pay on principle. Only 30 percent were willing to pay a dollar for parking.

76 percent of stolen bikes cost less than $500. The Montreal survey found that while 60 percent of all current bikes on Montreal streets were valued somewhere south of $500, such bikes made up three quarters of all thefts. People with expensive bikes may take greater precautions — buying better locks or renting off-street bike parking — but therein lies the problem. The more it costs to avoid having a bike stolen, the more expensive (and thus, for some, less desirable) riding becomes.

7 percent of victims never replaced their bikes. This might be the most important depressing statistic of all. It means these one-time riders revert to other forms of moving around the city, no doubt in many cases by car. That's exactly the type of unsustainable mode shift that cities invest in bike programs to avoid.

Top image: neko92vl /Shutterstock.com

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