If you’ve ever had a bike stolen, you might have scoured Craigslist looking for it or cased every similar bike being ridden down the street. There’s a sort of judgy paranoia bike theft brings out in people—it can can feel very personal. However, most bike thefts are impersonal. From your lycra-clad coworker’s carbon fiber frame to your little cousin’s Mongoose BMX, the victims of bike theft are wide and varied. As the number of cyclists in New Orleans increases, and the attention towards bike infrastructure and safety grows, the issue of bike theft has been thrust into the spotlight.
Civic authorities show only cursory interest in addressing issues of bike theft, much less enforcing other bicycling laws on the books aimed at safety. It’s unclear whether bike theft has increased proportionally with the amount of people on bikes or if bike theft is just getting more attention. While bike theft statistics are incomplete, they do provide some insight into the extent of the problem. According to the NOPD in 2012, 962 bikes were stolen in that year. Those numbers shocked Bike Easy, the local non-profit bike advocacy group, so they started their own database to report stolen bikes. Based on the information they gathered, the number from the NOPD may have been lowballed—58% of stolen bikes were not reported to the police, according to Bike Easy’s data.
The top five most stolen bike brands are Schwinn, Trek, Huffy, Specialized, and Giant—all common beginner level or commuter bikes. While the avenues for selling stolen bikes range from $20 on the street for a pilfered Trek or several hundred for a rehashed road bike on Craigslist, some folks try to sell the stolen bikes to bike shops. “When somebody comes in with a beat up road bike and wants to sell it for $150, it’s usually their bike. If someone comes in wanting 20 bucks for the same bike, then it’s probably stolen,” says Aaron Newsome, the owner of The Bike Shop on Freret Street. After eight years of business, Newsome says he knows of only two stolen bikes he bought accidentally. Each time he returned the bike to the person who reported it stolen and made it right, despite the cost to himself. “One time, this dude came in and sold me what I thought at the time was his bike. Turns out it was his dad’s. I learned about it when the dad saw a customer riding the bike, and the guy told him where he got it,” says Newsome. “He came in and I showed him the paperwork for who sold it to me, and you could just see the disappointment in his face. Anyway, we all got together and worked it out.”
Increased awareness about bike theft has led to efforts to stop it. One of the most visible and vocal groups has been Stolen Bikes NOLA. Their mission has been to help people understand how to protect their bikes. If a bike is stolen, they try to recover it.
Stolen Bikes NOLA doesn’t know if the supposed spike in bike theft is due to increased ridership or more awareness about stolen bikes, but they see the problem as epidemic. The group began after several cyclists started noticing all of the reports about stolen bikes on Craigslist and Facebook pages like the NOLA Social Ride. As a result, Alex Fleming, the group’s president, created a group Facebook page for reporting stolen bikes. “The first night after we set up the page, I kept getting notifications. My phone wouldn’t stop going off. People kept posting stolen bike after stolen bike, and I thought this problem was way more serious than we thought,” says Fleming.
Fleming got in touch with Dean Gray, who had already worked to recover stolen bikes by himself. The group receives reports of stolen bikes, but they also urge people to report it to the police and Bike Easy’s stolen bike database. Instead of notifying shops about a stolen bike, like the Bike Easy database, Stolen Bikes NOLA uses the eyes and ears of its riding members to help locate stolen bikes and identify bike thieves. Then, they attempt to recover the bikes using a variety of means: asking for it back, paying the person who has it $20, or hopping fences to take them out of backyards or squatted homes. Most of the recovery work is handled by Gray, who regularly cases abandoned houses where suspected bike thieves live and searches the property for bikes, whether or not somebody is home.
Flemming, Gray, and a host of others work long hours to identify bikes and help recover them. Stolen Bikes NOLA garnished substantial media attention last year when it joined forces with NOPD to bust a known bike thief in an abandoned house on Elysian Fields. According to Gray, they’ve recovered over 500 bikes in just six months of activity.
Even though the group recently gained non-profit status, recovery continues to be a major aspect of their mission. It’s a tricky process, and one that’s rife with concerns about safety, profiling, and legality. Concerns about questionable legal and ethical activities aren’t entirely ignored by the group, but they do believe the ends justify the means. They’ve published mug shots and security footage of thieves they claim have been caught in the act. Group members take photos of suspected bike thieves or people caught selling stolen bikes, then post them to Facebook as a “buyer beware” warning. People also report physical descriptions of who they believe to have stolen their bike. As a result of these comments and highly publicized busts of bike thieves, some members of the cycling and activist community are quick to label the group as vigilantes.
“You can call it vigilantism, but I don’t like that word. I like ‘direct action,’” says Fleming. “Direct action is community and caring about your neighbors and environment, while vigilantism is very selfish and cares only about the cause and not the effect.” Responding to concerns about racism and classicism, along with the group’s general tactics, Fleming says he’s worried about the prospect of violence or that an innocent person could be hurt or falsely accused. “I want people to keep it focused on the bikes. I’m always saying: keep it focused on the bikes.”
Fleming’s worries about keeping the reins tight on online discussion have led to specific warnings against anyone threatening violence or using overtly racist language. He’ll delete comments from people posting racist remarks and others who call it out. Although, keeping the focus on the bikes is difficult when the group actively encourages physical descriptions of suspects and keeps a Facebook photo gallery of them. Despite the group’s admissions that not everyone who sells a stolen bike is the person who stole it and that some bikes are just abandoned, many of these people are thrown in with legitimate convicted bike thieves for public ostracization. The group says they’ve built up a rap sheet of photos and other information on anyone whose picture they post. More than bike theft suspects, members of the group will also post photos of bike ads and fliers with the subtitle “just in case.”
Reaction from various corners of the cycling community vary. They have many supporters—some cyclists who’ve had stolen bikes recovered, others who just appreciate the idea of community members actively responding to an issue ostensibly ignored by the civic authorities. “The nice thing about Stolen Bikes NOLA is that it’s positive, non-violent; it tries to be as absolutely fair as possible to the people who have [stolen] bikes because they realize that they ’re probably not the bike thief,” says Tim Eskew, who works at Bicycle Michael’s.
Other cyclists are skeptical. Greg Jean and Darren Knox worry that the group’s Facebook page and recovery tactics contribute to the ongoing criminalization of poor and Black men in New Orleans. “I don’t want to see people’s bikes get stolen. That sucks,” Says Jean. “It’s a shitty thing… What I’m concerned about is the conversation around [ bike theft]. I’m worried that any type of vigilantism, especially unchecked vigilantism, is borderline racist and classist, and often times it’s not borderline.”
Jean and Knox work at RHUBARB Bikes, a 9th Ward bicycle co-op that opened a decade ago and primarily serves low-income youth. RHUBARB offers a place where kids can learn how to work on donated used bikes and volunteer in the shop to work off the price of bike parts. The co-op also sells affordable used bikes to increase access to sturdy bikes that aren’t cost prohibitive. They pay to register each bike sold with the NOPD and work to educate customers and students about the proper ways to protect their bikes from theft.
“I think New Orleans is a city with a lot of socioeconomic issues and inequality, and whenever you have that income gap you’re going to have theft, ” says Knox. “I think the target is not like a wealthy bike baron who is making a ton of money, but people who are struggling and bike theft is a way to get by.”
In more introspective moments, the organizers of the Stolen Bike group hear the criticism and will admit they’re a temporary fix to a permanent problem. “If [the thieves] stop stealing bikes, then they’re gonna steal something else,” says one of the group’s tech people, Thomas Schneider. “What that’s going to be, I don’t know.”
They also see bike theft as the product of larger problems such as drug abuse and lack of mental health resources. “It kills me,” says Fleming. “This city hardly has any clinics, hardly any rehab centers. I have the feeling that if we did have those things, then the problem [of bike theft] would go down tremendously. Doing this has opened my eyes how everything is connected. We’re putting a patch on [the issue of bike theft], but we’re not fixing it.”
The group is working with organizations and bike shops to identify why bikes are stolen. It’s a move towards education and prevention that seeks to minimize the chances of a bike being stolen and to put shops on the alert for stolen bikes.
Bike theft is a crime of opportunity. Part of the move towards deterring bike theft is educating the public about how to properly use a decent bike lock. Thieves often simply take the least secure bike. Bike Easy’s data shows that part of the problem of bike theft is user error. 25% of bikes reported stolen weren’t secured to anything. A similar percentage of stolen bikes were secured to a metal pole or fence that was easily dismantled, a circumstance Bike Easy points toward to indicate the lack of adequate bike parking throughout the city. By far, the reason for most bike theft is due to cheap cable locks. A whopping 40% of bikes stolen had their cable locks snipped.
“Shitty locks” has become a sort of awareness rallying cry for the group. Strong locks aren’t cheap and there is discussion among the group about how to increase access to expensive bike locks by providing coupons for u-locks. “It’s a lot to do with education and it has a lot to do with income,” says Lauren Sturm, who is helping develop a photo database of stolen bikes. “Somebody that spends $100 on a bike might not be able to afford an $80 lock.”
Thomas Schneider and Lauren Sturm began developing a tie-in for bikes reported to Stolen Bikes NOLA. They want any stolen bikes to show up on a new national database called Bike Index. They’ve utilized QR codes, both on stickers and encoded into bike reflectors, that can retrieve information about a bike’s owner, its location, and if it’s been reported stolen. Still, a database isn’t any good if nobody uses it. The group plans to put these codes and information about registering bikes on the database in bike shops and host registration drives. Since QR codes require smartphones and you need access to the internet to register a bike online, these new methods for preventing bike theft are cost prohibitive and might not reach the entire scope of people who ride bikes in New Orleans.
As cycling increases in the city, education about how to prevent theft must remain focused on the vast diversity of people who ride bikes and how to include them in the conversation. Unless some major systemic changes are made to address issues of poverty, lack of resources to mental health facilities, and homelessness, bike theft, and other types of theft, will persist.
For more information on bike theft and general bicycle resources, check out bikeeasy.org, bikeindex.org, rhubarbike.com, and nolasocialride.org.
CORRECTION: Last month we ran a story on the bicycle community’s response to theft in New Orleans. Unfortunately, we got a few things wrong, but a member of that community wrote us an email to set us straight:
i love your paper and lately there’s been all sorts of great articles about the city and what’s happening in it. However, upon reading the article on stolen bicycles in New Orleans, there were some mistakes reported about RUBARB (which I am a member of ). First of all, RUBARB is an acronym for Rusted Up Beyond All Recognition Bikes. But the writer wrote RHUBARB over and over, which to be honest, annoyed me! Secondly, we are NOT a co-op. We are a community bike shop. I don’t know who told the author of this article that we’re a co-op, but we’re not. We’re simple a community bike shop, and that’s it. Lastly, the statement “they pay to register each bike sold with the NOPD” is completely untrue and something we have NEVER done at RUBARB (we’ve been around for 10 years, and this has never happened!).
The volunteers who were interviewed, Greg and Darren, definitely would not have said such a thing. We have never registered bikes with the NOPD (and I’ve been with RUBARB since the beginning). Anyway, I just wanted to clarify those things, as it’s been bugging me ever since I read the article. I hope in the future someone does some fact checking, as the name of a place should at least be the one thing you get right!
Thanks for listening, sorry for complaining, Liz (member of RUBARB)