Urban Tribe - Ride with your kids in front.

Willamette Week does bike theft cover story

Posted by on August 23rd, 2006 at 8:43 am

[Still from Willamette Week video
shows intern using bolt cutters while
people ignore him completely.]

Just noticed the Willamette Week has devoted a cover story to bike theft. They sent out intern Josh Silverman to steal his own bike in broad daylight to see if anyone would stop him (no one did).

They also made a video documenting the experiment.

They got the idea for their story from a video called “Bike Thief” by The Neistat Brothers that was all over the web a few months ago. In that video actors also stole their own bikes but used power tools on busy New York City streets. No one even batted an eye.

But Portland is a much different place than New York City.

In this case the actor was a clean-cut white kid using ordinary bolt cutters (as opposed to power tools). I’m sure the response would have been different if he was a more sketchy-looking individual. I think people assumed that Silverman just lost his key and was just trying to get his bike back.

Ironically, as their story points out, on the day of their experiment there were six bikes listed on the Stolen Bike Listings.

Remember, the best thing to do if you see someone stealing a bike is to call 911. If they did lose their key, let them explain that to the cops. This is good motivation to have some sort of means to identify your bike in your wallet at all times.

This story and video is also a good reminder that if you use a cheap chain or cable lock, your bike is as good as gone. Using a high-quality U-lock makes losing your bike to thieves much less likely.

For tips on bike theft prevention and recovery, check out my Bike Theft page. And by the way, I’m just about ready to launch my revamped stolen bike listings…stay tuned!

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  • Amy August 23, 2006 at 9:06 am

    This post reminded me of a question I’ve been pondering for a while. I work downtown, and often spend my lunch hour at the waterfront. I will occasionally see someone biking verrrry sloooowly down the waterfront on a bike that just doesn’t quite look like it’s theirs (they are clearly too tall for the bike; it has clipless pedals and they’re wearing sneakers, etc). What does one do in this situation?

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  • Brad August 23, 2006 at 9:58 am

    I don’t know what to make of this. Does this mean that Portlanders are:

    A. Overly trustworthy rubes worried about seeming un-PC by asking questions


    B. Just as self-absorbed and gutless as the rest of America

    I loved the fact that he is using bolt cutters with no questions asked. Seriously, who doesn’t have a heavy set of bolt cutters always on hand for such emergencies? Pathetic and funny at the same time.

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  • philvarner August 23, 2006 at 11:07 am

    I’d ignore them too. Anyone doing this is either (1) trying to recover their own bike (unlikely), or (2) dumb/brazen enough to do this in broad daylight that they wouldn’t mind taking a swing at me with their bolt cutters.

    Anyway, anyone who uses a cable lock is asking to have their bike stolen anyway. Might as well put a post-it note on the bike saying that it’s locked up.

    What about a cable/chain lock “turn-in” program, where you can get an inexpensive U-lock at-cost in exchange for your useless old lock?

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  • Andrew August 23, 2006 at 11:10 am

    I’m sure bike thieves count on the fact that, when they are crouched in the middle of a nest of parked bikes, it’s not easy to see what they’re up to. Unless passers by look over a thief’s shoulder and thoroughly inspect what’s going on, it’s not very obvious what a thief is doing. I know *I* don’t check to make sure every time I see somebody fiddling with a balky u-lock.

    As you mention, a sturdy u-lock is the best way to minimize trouble. I learned a hard lesson when I lived in Chicago, where I u-locked the frame of my bike to a rack but secured the rear wheel with a kryptonite plastic-coated steel cable. One day I came out to find the cable had been neatly severed and my rear wheel taken — the thief had left his/her crappy rear wheel in its place. All this in front of Union Station where thousands of people stream past every day. After that, whenever I parked there I removed the front wheel and locked the rear wheel, front wheel and frame all with a NY City lock. No problems with that set-up.

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  • curio August 23, 2006 at 2:09 pm

    follow-up to post…

    What are my non-liable courses of action in encountering a bike thief (or really, any scofflaw of the thieving variety)?

    1. call cops? (safe obviously)

    2. hit criminal with blunt object (ha)? (would there be any legal repercussions to me?)

    3. against a bike thief, can I push them off bike even if they hurt themselves? (would there be any legal repercussions to me?)

    4. block criminal from leaving?

    5. I don’t have immediate access to a phone so do I merely observe and document then report to cops?

    6. other options?

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  • Cate August 23, 2006 at 5:16 pm

    The WW article said to call 911 and stick around to observe and be a witness. What they didn’t say is, get out your camera and take photos. It seems like a lot of people have cameras on their cell phones these days. If you don’t have one (I don’t), you could ask someone nearby.

    Another idea is to politely ask the possible- thief if the bike is theirs. If they say yes, then you could ask them if they would mind if you contacted the police about the bike. This would give you more to go on.

    The WW article would’ve been more credible if they had used a real bike thief to do the fake thefts. Then readers wouldn’t have been left wondering whether people in Portland don’t care or the WW intern just looked too honest to be stealing a bike. People can sense when something is really wrong. (I saw a guy get out of his car a few years ago in my neighborhood and my whole body broke out in goosebumps. He didn’t do anything – I just knew something was wrong. I got his license plate and it turned out he had a long history of drug-related crimes.)

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  • SKIDmark August 23, 2006 at 5:27 pm

    I had a similar dillema on the MAX. Ther was a guy about 5’7″ a little dishevelled looking , with no teeth. My guess is a chronic meth user. He has with him a Litespeed Titanium road with a Campagnolo group. It was of course clipless. He had an Aquafina bottle in the water bottle cage. He was heading downtown, my guess is to the waterfront, to try to trade it for some more meth, at about a 100th of the value of of the bike.

    I got on my cell and called nerf to ask him if he could meet me downtown to confront this fool, but he was way over in NE or something. He did look up the bikeportland.org stolen list but didn’t find one, and commented that search for a specific bike on the list is kinda difficult.

    I was not going to confront him on my own cuz I am older and know I am not invincible, and anyone without the moral compass to keep them from stealing a bike would not think twice about stabbing me if he had a knife. In the event that the Police arrive, it would be hard to see who the Police would believe, the dissheveled toothless guy or the tattooed pierced freak trying to take away his bike.

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  • Gregg August 23, 2006 at 5:45 pm

    There is a site search up at the top of the page to use, it should help with stolen listings. Using it for “litespeed” returns http://www.google.com/search?sourceid=navclient-ff&ie=UTF-8&rlz=1B2GGGL_enUS177&q=site:bikeportland.org+litespeed

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  • Patrick August 23, 2006 at 7:07 pm


    I just got back from BC. Victoria has a cool campaign going right now about bike lock safety. Drop me a line and I’ll send you the brouchure I picked up from a bike shop up there. Pretty cool idea……

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  • lianagan August 24, 2006 at 4:13 pm

    I has been my observation while walking downtown, or anywhere else for that matter, that the majority of people are not aware of their surroundings at all; they walk with their heads straight, often talking on their phones, completely absorbed in their own thoughts, never looking around, completely oblivious. Add to this the dominant attitude of a bike not being that important, not as important as someone stealing a car, for example, and you are left with an extremely small percentage of people, probably a fraction of 1%, who would be likely to notice and do something about a bike theft in progress.

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  • ariel August 26, 2006 at 11:09 pm

    When I read this WW article, it reminded me of a thing that just took place earlier this week.

    I was waiting for the bus up on North Vancouver at 8am–street was busy, ful of cars and cyclists on their way to work. I saw a rather sketchy looking guy walk up to this shiny-fancy black BMW with tinted windows (unfortunately, didn’t get the LP # on the car). The guy circled it, motioned like he was trying a key in the passenger side door, circled the car again, then pulled a coat-hanger out of his jacket sleeve (!!!!) and proceeded to slip it in the window and unlock the door. This was going down just as I was climbing on the bus. We were stopped at a light, and the bus driver as well as all the passengers on the bus, and the guy at the bus stop with me also, ostensibly, had full view of what was taking place.

    Not having my phone on me, I didn’t call 911 immediately, and the reactions of everyone else (or lack thereof) baffled me a little. Did no one else HONESTLY see this? WTF? it made me second-guess myself a little.

    I called the police non-emergency number when I got to work 30 min later (by that point, it didn’t seem like a 911-type call to make), and filed a reportwith the Portland police. Unfortunately, the person taking down my report was completely non-plussed. She asked for some very basic info (where was it, did you get the LP#, what was his race) and that was about it. Certainly there wasn’t much they could do for this car, but it seemed to me like, given a good description of the guy, a cop in the area could have done something. And I had a good description to give!!

    Anyhow, while my response to the situation wasn’t perfect–I didn’t do a lot of things at the time that in retrospect I think I should have done–I was a little frustrated by the police and community response too. Then again, for all I know, everyone else on the bus called the cops when they got to work, too.

    I know that if I’d been the owner of that car, it’d have given me some sort of peace of mind to know that someone called it in, even if that attempt ended up being fruitless.

    Ok. Anyhow. Seemed related.

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