Lock, stock and serial number: the search for new ways to deter bike theft

Andrew Zaleski Features, Issue 1 0 Comments

Ryan Lohbauer remembers it as “freakish” that he found his stolen bike, a 1986 Lotus Challenger, blocks from the house he shares with his brother on South Chadwick Street in Point Breeze.

Lohbauer, a 34-year-old architect who doesn’t own a car — he uses one of four bikes for daily transportation — normally locks up on the grate outside his house. “I had actually lent the bicycle to my brother because his frame had broken just a week earlier,” recalls Lohbauer, who has lived in Philadelphia for 12 years. “One of my neighbors was talking to him. He just absent-mindedly one night forgot to lock it up. Somebody walked off with it.”

Lohbauer isn’t the first Philadelphia cyclist to have his bike stolen, and he certainly won’t be the last. Around 11,000 bikes worth a total of $3.9 million were stolen in the city between 2007 and 2013, according to an analysis by local software company Azavea and sponsored by the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.

In 2007, around 137 bikes were stolen per month. That rate increased to 162 per month in 2012. As more Philadelphians take to cycling — U.S. Census data from last year indicates that more than 14,000 city residents commute via bicycle — the number of stolen bikes is only likely to rise.

Local cyclists have been fighting back. A variety of efforts to curb bike theft have taken root in recent years, including bicycle registries and citizen-reporting on social media.

The Philadelphia Stolen Bikes group on Facebook is one of the newer measures. More than 2,900 people have joined since its creation in 2010, and reports of stolen bikes — some complete with photos, detailed descriptions, and addresses where the theft took place — are posted daily.

“Membership goes up all the time,” says Dan Langille, an administrator for the group. “There’s a spurt every summer as people start reporting bike thefts and they see their friends have joined.” He adds that while the Facebook group tries to help people take measures to avoid thefts in the first place, many members join only after their bikes have already been stolen.

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Oftentimes, all you need to deter opportunistic bike thieves is a good U-lock. Temple University gives away vouchers for free U-locks to the first 500 students who register their bicycles with university police. In fact, bicycle registries — crowdsourced databases of what bikes are in which neighborhoods — have become a popular tool themselves.

The South of South Neighborhood Association teamed up with the 17th Police District to create such a database in 2012. Cyclists give their name, contact information, the make and color of their bike, and the manufacturer’s serial number, as well as any photos of the bike they can provide. Then they go to their police district headquarters to have a specific registration number etched onto the frame of their ride. A similar program is in place in the 3rd Police District, and Center City’s 6th District has a bike registry program in development. The ultimate effect is the same: Police have a file on record to which they can refer if a registered bike is reported stolen.

Data — not just on individual bikes, but also on the overall number of stolen bikes — are important. It’s one reason why Mark Headd, former chief data officer at the Philadelphia Office of Innovation and Technology, pushed the city to hand over three years of bike theft data for a transportation-themed hackathon in fall 2013. Computer programmers and coders used the data to map where Philly bike thefts take place most often. Knowing where thefts are more likely to occur provides cyclists with actionable intelligence, the sort that might prompt bike commuters to lock up on a different part of the street.

There is a clear public hunger for these numbers. In a 2011 contest called OpenDataRace, wherein Philadelphians were asked which data sets they wanted to see made public on the city’s open data website, “reported bike thefts by address or police district” came in second, with 552 votes. Tim Wisniewski, who replaced Headd as chief data officer in July, writes in an email that no agreement had been worked out with Philadelphia police to update the bike theft data released in 2013 for the hackathon. He adds that his department will “revisit with them in the next six months when we conduct an inventory” of data sets on OpenDataPhilly.org.

But cyclists can be proactive and help recover their bikes even before theft happens, according to Captain Frank Milillo of the 3rd Police District.

“He just absent-mindedly one night forgot to lock it up. Somebody walked off with it.”

“You know what the biggest problem is?” Milillo says. “People don’t write down their serial numbers, and when they make a report, they don’t have it. By not having a serial number [on file], we really can’t prove it’s their bike.”

Take Ryan Lohbauer’s word for it. He took a photo of the serial number on each of his bikes, and after his Lotus Challenger was stolen, he was able to give that information to police when filing a report. On a midnight ride with his brother just days after the Challenger was swiped, Lohbauer spotted it on another house’s front porch. When he confronted the alleged thief, the man assured Lohbauer that the bike in question was one he purchased for $20.

Lohbauer wasted no time. He called the police, and while there was no way to definitively prove that the man was a thief, Lohbauer was able to prove that the bike was his. Why? Its serial number matched up with the number he had given to police days before.

“As soon as you say to police, ‘I’ve got the serial number,’ it’s over,” Lohbauer says. “There’s no question.”

Illustrations by Tim Pacific

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