My motto used to be “friends don’t let friends ride junk.” That’s the slogan for the Great Lakes Cycling store on East Stadium Boulevard. It was a catchphrase I used when I was able to afford to shop there. But that was before I became the victim of unchecked bike theft.
An Ann Arbor native, I bought my first bicycle from Great Lakes during my senior year of high school and rode it all over town for the rest of that year. I rarely locked it. I trusted this town too much; it didn’t seem possible that anyone would actually take it.
It wasn’t the smartest move I’ve ever made.
Within a few months of moving onto campus freshman year I parked my bike next to a University building and left it unlocked for five days. When I finally decided it was time to move it, it was still there. Then I went into the building for a few hours. It was gone when I came out.
The Department of Public Safety estimates that 35 bikes were reported stolen last year from University property, down from 65 in 2003. But it’s a crime that is probably grossly underreported. Intuitively, it doesn’t make much sense for students to go through the hassle of reporting a petty larceny when it seems there’s little the police can do to solve the case. I didn’t report my stolen bike because I assumed it could never be found.
Sgt. Oscar Lopez, coordinator of the Team Community Oriented Policing efforts for DPS, said he couldn’t remember any bicycle that wasn’t registered with the city ever being returned to its owner.
In 1994, the manufacturers of Bad Bones U-Bar locks commissioned a study that found only one in three bike theft victims report the crime to the police. If that’s accurate, the FBI’s estimate that 500,000 bikes were stolen in 1994 should be closer to 1.5 million. With the average cost of a new bicycle about $276, bike thieves could be netting more than $138 million a year.
The next bicycle I bought from Great Lakes Cycling cost less than the first. I also bought a large Kryptonite U-lock to go with it, the kind DPS recommends. Then I made another stupid move. In my hurry to get to class I locked the wheel of the bike to the frame but didn’t bother to lock it to a rack. When I came out of class it was gone.
By this time, though I was still too careless to lock my bike to a rack, I should have at least registered it with the city. While most students don’t take the time to register their bikes, what most don’t realize is that it’s illegal not to. But that law is just one small part of five pages of basically un-enforced city ordinances regarding bicycles.
In bike theft cases, there’s actually fairly little police can do. When someone reports a stolen bike, police issue an advisory about the color and brand, but according to Lopez, it’s not always a very effective technique because “most of those bikes look the same.” However, if a bicycle suspected to be stolen is found with a serial number corresponding to a registered bike, the owner might be notified.
DPS’s most strenuous bike-related task is not investigating theft, but finding ways to dispose of abandoned bikes. Last year, officers impounded 200 bikes on campus because of another little-known city ordinance that makes it illegal to park your bike in one spot for more than two days. They gave 150 bikes to charity and turned the remaining 50 into scrap metal.
Bikes lie abandoned all over campus. Sad and neglected, some are missing wheels and seats, while others have literally fallen apart. Local bike enthusiasts say this is partially the University’s fault because it doesn’t provide adequate bike storage at dorms or University buildings. Kristine Talley, president of the Washtenaw Biking and Walking Association, which advocates for environmentally sound transportation, said she feels the University is being hypocritical by not providing shelter for bicycles at the same time it encourages students not to bring cars to campus. She said that most students can’t afford aluminum frames, and when they leave their bike outside for the winter they then find that rust has rendered their bicycles inoperable.
Some other universities have hundreds of sheltered bike lockers. This is an innovation that the University would be happy to add to our dorms too, says Alternative Transportation Coordinator Brian Pawlowski, but students don’t want it. Pawlowski says most bike lockers the University installs are used by doctors – the only people who express any interest.
That’s not the only area where the University is falling behind. Other colleges and even some big cities have instituted a Yellow Bike program in which yellow bikes are put on local bike racks for communal use. But these programs have had only varied success, mostly because people keep stealing them.
Bill Loy is the owner of the Campus Student Bike Shop. He’s owned it since 1962 when he bought the title for a dollar from then owner Fred Beaver, who was a student at the time. Loy is aging but alert and affable; when I talked to him he was sporting a blue sweatshirt proclaiming that The Michigan Daily voted the Campus Student Bike Shop the year’s best bike shop in 1996.
Loy laments what he describes as a dramatic decline in business over the last few years, especially from students. He also said that vandalism is an ongoing problem. One night four years ago, Loy became so concerned about bicycle vandalism around town he followed around a group of kids and watched them knock bikes over and ride over them with other bicycles (There’s even a Facebook group called Bicycle Beaters Anonymous).
“They just beat a bike up ’cause it’s not going to hit ’em back,” he said.
Actually, it’s really easy to take advantage of bicycles in Ann Arbor. After my two bikes were stolen I didn’t have the cash to buy a new one at Great Lakes. I didn’t even have the cash to buy a used one at Campus Student Bike Shop – where the cheapest, rattiest bicycle costs $99 and other cheap bicycles cost more than $200.
So I committed a crime.
I was in a hurry to get to class and I saw a bike that was unlocked just like mine had been, and I borrowed it. Afterwards, I put it back on the rack where I found it. Some people would call that stealing, I guess. But at the time, riding junk seemed like a better idea than not riding at all. I was staggered at how easy it was to ride off with someone else’s $300 purchase.
Why not institutionalize a bike-borrowing system? There are enough abandoned bikes in this town to accommodate most students who walk to class. The University hasn’t seriously considered implementing a system similar to the Yellow Bikes program, at least not that DPS spokeswoman Diane Brown had heard of when I talked to her. As much as I wanted to be the instigator of a similar program here, I gave up bike theft and bought a new one.
The tire was stolen three days later.