November 29, 2013

A "spiritually starved and hopeless addict..."

"...publicly self-destructing."

That's how one Dave Cutter described your standard-issue bicycle thief in a comment he left on a BikeForums thread I started to encourage cyclists to check out Bike Thieves Beware. Cutter thinks that BTB gives bike thieves too much credit and argues that most bike thefts are committed by opportunists who lack specialized experience. If you're naive or complacent enough—I was—to "secure" your bike with a cable lock, they'll gladly liberate it, but they're not spending hours taking high-tech locks apart to figure out how they work.

"It is not the bicycle thief against the bicycle owner," wrote Cutter. "It is [a] spiritually starved and hopeless addict...publicly self-destructing. Bicycle owners are merely the innocent bystanders who are directly affected."

While, as #5 in "Interview with a Bike Thief" attests, there definitely are some criminals out there actively keeping up with bike owners' latest antitheft strategies (another BikeForums commenter indicated that if he were a bike thief, he might frequent BTB for just that purpose!), Cutter's comment got me thinking about why people steal bikes.

I read this story recently about an unemployed Englishman who stole a bike in order to—so he said—give it to his child as a Christmas present, but the impression I've gotten is that most bike thieves—the habitual ones, anyway—are addicts, hooked on crack or heroin or something similarly strong and destructive.

So isn't the real problem—a problem even more daunting than how to make a two wheeler immune to snatch-and-carry—how to keep could-be thieves out of what commenter Cutter called a "death spiral" of addiction and criminality?  

November 26, 2013

We Are Watching You

I have Philosophy Now to thank for this tip. (Bike theft is everywhere, people, I'm telling you.) The news department of the May/June issue of the magazine included an item—titled "Sartre's Gaze in Action?"—about a study in which researchers placed posters of eyes above bike racks in an attempt to deter theft.

It turns out that a full account of the study—conducted by Daniel Nettle and colleagues at the Centre for Behaviour & Evolution at the UK's Newcastle University—is freely available online, so of course I checked it out.

In what they describe as "a simple, cheap anti-bicycle theft intervention using signs designed to evoke the psychology of being watched," Nettle et al. installed durable signs at three locations on the Newcastle campus where the incidence of bike theft was known to be high. Ninety by sixty centimeters (that's about three feet by two feet), the signs "featured a black and white image of a pair of male eyes with direct forward gaze" and bore, along with the logo of the local police service, the headline "Cycle Thieves: We Are Watching You" and the name "Operation Crackdown."


When researchers compared the number of bikes stolen from under the watchful eyes during the year after the posters were installed with the number of bikes stolen from the same locations during the previous year, the results were startling: Bicycle thefts had decreased by 62% at the experimental locations!

Unfortunately it seems that the decrease is attributable to what's called "displacement of offending." This is just what it sounds like: An individual inclined to steal a bike but spooked by the pair of disembodied eyes staring down at him from above one bike rack simply moves on to an eyes-free rack and steals a bike there. In the Newcastle study, bicycle thefts in the control locations—racks around campus without posters—increased by 65% after the posters went up.

So what's to be done? Despite the displacement of offending (what would happen if the posters were ubiquitous??), Nettle et al. contend that a "cheap sign-based intervention" similar to the one they tested could be effective, particularly if "combined with probabilistic actual surveillance, to reinforce the perception of being watched with occasional evidence that this perception is real."

As an individual cyclist, though? I don't know about you, but I'm hatching plans to get an enlargement of the most intimidating stare I can find printed on a foldable placard I can affix above my bicycle when I lock it up around town... (Reminiscent of the cardboard cop, eh?)

November 22, 2013

Ask Patrick

Remember when, way back in the early days of BTB, I referred y'all to Patrick Symmes's Outside piece "Who Pinched My Ride?"? You read it, right? Good. Because Symmes has agreed to entertain a few questions from readers of Bike Thieves Beware!

So what do you want to ask the man whose "simple vendetta...grew to encompass three cities, seven bikes, and repeated encounters with the dangerous underworld of vanished bicycles," the man who wrote that "the futility of locking is shocking"?

Use the comments feature to submit questions, or avail yourselves of the "Write to BTB" widget in the righthand column (scroll down). Don't be shy! I'd like to get the questions to Symmes by next Friday, so submit yours sooner rather than later.

November 19, 2013

"There Are Those Who Steal Bikes"

I worry that over-introduction will detract from the story here, so I'll try to keep this short.

After a friend gave him a bike as a graduation present, Zilong Wang rode it across the country east to west, relying on the generosity of strangers for shelter along the way. Mere weeks after Wang arrived in San Francisco for an internship, though, the theft of his beloved bike shook his faith in humanity.

Read Wang's story—either on his blog or at (more context)—if you crave a happy ending or want insight into the stolen bike trade in San Francisco. Read it for tips on how to spot a bike thief (is the suspect trailing a bike that's the wrong size for him or her?). Read it for Wang's take on the American obsession with lawns or to find out how a homeless man's question changed the blogger-bicyclist's view of the workaday world...

November 15, 2013

Reject "Nihilistic Surrender to the Inevitability of Theft"

"When John Loughlin lowers a cordless angle grinder onto a section of a TiGr titanium bike lock clamped to a table, it emits a piercing scream of something that has a reason to live."

Thus begins Gina Welch's piece in the December issue of Bicycling magazine. Called "Unlocked," its title spread shows none other than Hal Ruzal—dreadlocks, cutoffs, four inches of pink sock visible above purple-laced Converse high tops—taking an angle grinder to chain lock on a New York sidewalk.

If you see a copy of this latest Bicycling on an airport newsstand or in your dentist's waiting room, by all means give the feature a look. (Or read it online.) Not only does Welch's piece give insights into what folks at TiGr, Kryptonite, OnGuard, and Knog (out of Australia) are up to; it's paired with two informative boxes, one detailing the results of the magazine's "smash lab" test of various locks and the other offering tips for deploying your lock to greatest effect.

And the author, who seems resigned at the outset of her trip to the "new frontier of bike security," ends her investigation markedly more upbeat.

Welch on her bike lock, p.46: "I use mine because it narrows the pool of potential thieves from All Jerks to just Jerks Carrying Tools. But I don't trust my lock to withstand an attack, and every manufacturer I spoke to supported my reasoning: If someone with skills and criminal intent wants my bike badly enough, he'll get it. End of story."

Welch's final paragraph, p.66: "Given the perpetual cat-and-mouse game that defines the industry, it seems cyclists can assume one of three attitudes: nihilistic surrender to the inevitability of theft, old-school reliance on brawn, or an adventurous ground-floor investment in something new. After watching designers press head, I decided to abandon Option One. I threw out my old busted U-lock and will double down on a better, sturdier systemarmed with a glimmer of hope and crossed fingers."

November 12, 2013

Replacement Bikes Come to S/he Who Swears (or Is Cute)

First I heard about Olgi Freyre. The 19-year-old Chicagoan had her $700 KHS Flite 223 stolen from outside the art supply store where she works 40 hours a week while going to DePaul University part-time. More as an outlet for rage than an appeal for sympathy, Freyre penned what the Huffington Post dubbed a "profanity-laced" note to the thief and posted it at the scene. "To the piece of shit that stole my bike from this bike rack," it began. (HuffPo carried an uncensored photograph of the note. Give it a read.)

Freyre's note went viral, and many who heard her story wanted to help. A man named Bob Curry met Freyre at a bike shop—he brought his daughter along—and bought her a new set of wheels.

Then, just as I was gearing up to do a post about Freyre, I learned that Atticus Seng, subject of a mid-October post, has also been the recipient of a replacement ride. As shown below, when Fresno high schoolers heard that the 9-year-old had had his bike stolen for a second time, they went classroom to classroom collecting money to buy him a new one. Seng was moved by the gesture: "I almost cried," he admits on camera. "I really did."
You can see why communities rallied around Seng and Freyre, an innocent, twice-wronged kid and a, to quote Freyre's note, "person who dedicates her time to making her life better rather than going around stealing shit." We're not all so irresistibly sympathetic, though, we victims of bike theft. And relying on Good Samaritans to replace stolen bikes is no way to address the root of the problem.

It's worth noting that in both of the cases discussed here the recipients of the replacement bikes plan to repay the kindness with good deeds of their own. Freyre hopes to organize a fundraiser or bike drive and the Sengs have expressed their intent to donate a sum of money equal to the price of Atticus's bike to Off the Front, a charity that works to provide underprivileged children in Fresno with bicycles.   

November 8, 2013

Kick-Start the Smart Lock Revolution

Just when I was ready to categorically bash cable locks (and I still might do so in a future post), it starts to look like the state-of-the-art in personal bike security is...a cable lock. A cable lock, though, like none you've seen before.

At the recently concluded TechCrunch Disrupt Europe technology conference, LOCK8 took home top honors—and a €40,000 check—in the startup launch competition Startup Battlefield. Between the TechCrunch monies and the funds raised by the venture's Kickstarter campaign, the London- and Berlin-based LOCK8 team should be able to bring their product to market.

But what is that product exactly? Just the "first GPS-tracked, siren-alarmed, sensor-enabled bicycle lock." LOCK8 is keyless and controlled remotely by smartphone:

Now this smartphone business gives me pause, and not just because I have yet to get with the 21st century. When riding public transportation here in DC, I always see and hear warnings about keeping a close eye on personal electronics. Securing your bike using your smartphone seems like protecting one oft-stolen piece of personal property with one even ofter-stolen.

Cell phone skepticism aside, I do like that the folks at LOCK8 consulted with bike thieves during the design process (as CTO Daniel Zajarias-Fainsod explained during the grilling he got from the TechCrunch judges). As a result, LOCK8 has sensors to register attack by any of the "villains of bicycle theft": There's a gyro accelerometer to detect vibrations caused by onslaught with a saw or a drill or an angle grinder and a temperature sensor that will trigger the lock's 120 decibel alarm if a would-be thief takes a blowtorch or ice spray to it.

One of the TechCrunch judges objected that LOCK8 "feels like a very elaborate way of telling you that your bike is being stolen," and, indeed, the lock's strength is not its impregnability. While different cable sizes will be available—"from standard wired cables to maximum security armored cables," according to the FAQs—it will still be just a cable affixing your ride to the rack or parking meter or telephone pole. LOCK8's hope, however, is that by building a community of concerned cyclists and denying thieves the luxury of time—tampering with a LOCK8 will cause an "instant push notification" to both the bike's owner and other LOCK8 users nearby—they can contrive for the good guys to have the upper hand.

November 5, 2013

"My bike is 9 feet long and weighs 110lbs"

I was incensed in October when thieves relieved a 9-year-old of his bike twice in as many months, and yesterday came news of another instance of similarly appalling effrontery. I mean, watch this video about Portland mom Emily Finch transporting five of her six kids around town under her own power and tell me you don't applaud what she's doing. (I'm not sure I'm down with having six kids, come to think of it, but if one has borne such a brood, better to bike them around than travel by Suburban.)

Anyway, Finch tweeted on Monday that her bike had been stolen overnight, a cargo of butternut and acorn squash with it. Subsequent tweets reveal that Finch "ditzed & left [her] bike out with keys dangling from the internal wheel lock, all sexy-like" and that she has the dream ending to her bike theft ordeal all scripted: "bike found with numerous upgrades in prep for resale; thieves dead beside it from choking on squash."

Fingers crossed that Portland's cycling community can pull together, track down the culprit, and reunite the Finch family with their ride.

November 3, 2013

Become a Bike Detective

Bike Registry Sunday installment #2

I can't become a bike detective, but perhaps you can. Got a smartphone? (Even if you don't, read on; there's content here even for the relative Luddites among us.)

Bike Shepherd—based out of the UK if the accents in the "Don't Steal My Bike" video embedded on its homepage are any indication—encourages folks who register their bikes (for free) to purchase and tag said bikes with Pulse ID tags. These are waterproof, tamper-resistant stickers with QR codes on them that can be scanned by smartphones. They are, according to Bike Shepherd, "trackable, traceable and tough." (What?! No Oxford comma, Bike Shepherd?) A set of three tags will run you $14.95.

Bike Shepherd also offers for download a free app that allows smartphone owners to scan Pulse ID tags, check whether a bike is stolen, and, if it is, inform police departments and Bike Shepherd's "army of Bike Detectives" of its location.

Now I can't do a proper app review because my lack of a smartphone prevents me from joining the (Bike Shepherd would have us believe) swelling ranks of bicycle gumshoes, but I did register my bikes—stolen and non-—and I have the Certificates of Registration (one of which appears above) to show for it. Can you say the same? Gather up those bike deets, visit the Bike Shepherd registry, and make sure that your name and that (those) serial number(s) are officially associated. Don't make me mount a full-blown, week-long, obnoxious-leafletter-deploying register-your-bike campaign...

(And if anyone does try out the app, let us know how it goes.)