Bike Thieves Suspected of Targeting Public Transit Routes

By Geoff Dankert | Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Anna Clark in front of the Starbucks at 3359 N. Southport Ave. A thief stole her locked bicycle in front of this store last summer. Credit: Geoff Dankert

Anna Clark thought her bicycle would be safe last August parked in front of the Starbucks at 3359 N. Southport Ave. A cable and lock secured her Jamis Satellite so that she could take a conference call inside the coffee shop, and she deliberately sat at a table with a view of the shop’s bike racks on Roscoe Street.

But as her call wrapped up around 3:45 p.m., she got a surprise.

“I looked up and I was like, ‘I gotta go. My bike just got stolen,’” she recalled. “I thought that I took enough precaution. My bike was locked, I was right there, it was a normal street corner in a pretty busy neighborhood.”

That scenario is all too familiar for many cyclists, and some observers say it’s evidence that thieves are specifically targeting riders who live and park along the CTA Brown Line. “We’ve seen just tons of bike thefts,” said Lesley Tweedie, co-owner of Roscoe Village Bikes, 2016 W. Roscoe St. Based on what she hears from customers, she said it seems as though “someone’s actually driving around with a van and power tools … and targeting these areas.”

The trend has also been noticed by the people who run Chicago’s stolen bicycle registry, StolenBike.org. “I think it’s absolutely true,” agreed site administrator Kevin Conway. “[At] Metra stations and [along] the Brown Line, we get a lot of thefts.” He chalks many of them up to a relatively small band of thieves. “Maybe five or six,” he estimated. “People who have crews, people who operate cordless angle grinders, people who drive around in vans and steal multiple bikes.”

StolenBike.org plots owners’ theft reports on a Google map, and the result is an explosion of red markers across Chicago’s North Side, with clusters around CTA stops. Chicago Police Commander John Kenny of the 19th District said that’s because there are more bikes to be stolen in these neighborhoods than in other parts of the city. “We have huge numbers of people who commute by bicycle and who have high-end bikes,” he said. “You don’t see it on the fringes of the city.”

A look at the map shows that thieves steal all varieties of bikes, even low-end department store brands. “Ugly bikes get stolen too,” Conway said, debunking a commonly held belief about preventing bike theft. Cmdr. Kenny said his officers have found no clear outlet for stolen bikes, suggesting that tales of bike shops and flea markets that deal in hot cycles are more “urban legend” than fact. Indeed, he said that many stolen bikes wind up being sold for scrap metal.

That makes recovering stolen bikes a big challenge. Conway cited Chicago police figures noting that fewer than 10 percent of stolen bikes are ever returned to their owners. Cmdr. Kenny said officers recently recovered more than 100 stolen bikes after the arrest of a suspected serial burglar in Lincoln Park, but only two could be returned to owners after checking serial numbers. “[Owners] don’t record the serial numbers, or if they do they can never find them.”

Anna Clark registered her bike’s theft on StolenBike.org after scouring Craigslist for a month and calling Chicago police, an experience she found frustrating. “The police officer just chuckled,” Clark said. “I know they have more serious things to deal with … [but] it was like, OK, this is a lost cause.” Cmdr. Kenny said he understands that losing a bike is “deeply personal” for a rider, and noted that he and his fellow supervisors frequently train officers about the need for empathy when taking a stolen bike report. However, he said, part of the difficulty is the city’s approach to “minor” crimes such as burglary.

“The city [looks] at property crime as, ‘We’ll take the report, if we come across it we’ll let you know, but here’s the [report] number for your insurance company,’” he said. However, Lesley Tweedie from Roscoe Village Bikes said that tactic may be short-sighted. “You know how they did that thing with dog fighting and they kind of found that dog fighting was a gateway crime?” she recalled. “I have a theory about bike theft. I think that maybe if more attention was paid to bike theft that it might lead to other things.”

For Clark, her then-new Jamis, “my favorite possession,” was a gateway to what she called “a whole new hobby,” and losing it to a thief felt like “a gut-punch.” Since the theft, she’s purchased two bikes: a nice one and another that she calls a “junky mountain bike,” which she rides if she knows she’ll have to lock it up outside. “At least if something happens, it’s not as devastating,” she said. “Even with a U-lock, even with two U-locks, I don’t risk it any more.”

For more information about how to keep your bicycle from being stolen, including a link to the Chicago Police Department’s Bicycle Registration program, visit the Chicago Bicycle Program website.

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  • Jay Tennant

    let’s start cutting peoples hands off.

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