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Even a 6-year-old can feel Portland’s massive bike theft problem

— This post was co-written by Michael Andersen and Jonathan Maus

KATU-TV ended their evening newscast on Friday with a pretty touching anecdote about a girl who knows how much her dad’s bikes mean to him.

As soon as six-year-old Roxy Thompson and her father Rob discovered that someone had stolen “about a half dozen custom road bikes” from his garage, she tried to think of things she could do to help.

“The first thing she said when we saw the garage door open was I could have all her money, all her life savings,” Rob Thompson told KATU.

Then Roxy took it on herself to make a sign that said, “Shame on you bike thieves!!! Your mom would be so disappointed!” She made the dot of each exclamation point into a frown-face and added an annotated picture of a broken heart with an arrow pointing to a picture of her dad.


This young lady personifies the widespread disdain of bike thieves in Portland these days, and the vast scope of the problem itself. We’ve been reporting on bike theft for many years and the problem has only increased. Below are some examples of what’s going wrong and how the problem impacts Portland…

Perfect storm of factors makes bikes a target

Now that such a huge share of Portlanders own bikes — it’s 28 percent of all adults in Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties — they’re maybe the single easiest thing for an amateur burglar to steal: easy to locate, highly valuable and easy to quickly transport away. And once a newly stolen bike has been fenced, it’s so hard to prosecute the profiteers that fencing operations sometimes operate more or less openly.

Theft is a barrier to bicycling

It’s probably an even bigger problem for low-income Portlanders. The Community Cycling Center and Cully’s Hacienda community have been working to improve bike parking there after finding that more than half of Latino families in focus groups said they had no safe place to park a bike.

A complicated issue for the Portland Police

The Portland Police are legally and operationally constrained when it comes to dealing with bike theft. Even when they know of alleged chop shops and other suspect operations, it can be difficult to obtain the necessary evidence and search warrants to do anything about them. Here’s a snip from a recent email exchange I had with a PPB officer about an alleged chop shop in St. Johns:

“we can think and ‘know’ the bikes are stolen all day long, but proving it is a different story. If we have no grounds to search the bike, or no consent in most cases, it’s tough to take a bike(s) back.”

Local bike shops are a common target

From the “window pane bandit” to the classic test ride technique, bike shops are a common target as well. The most recent incident happened last month at River City Bicycles, where the thieves cut a water pipe while trying to break in and ended up flooding the shop!

Bike theft detritus litters the city

Nearly every week we are contacted by people that find abandoned/stolen bikes in front of their house or stashed in the bushes in their yard. It happens so often we’ve considered created a “Found Stolen Bike” listing service. In the meantime, if you find a stolen bike, re-read our primer on how to handle it.

Brazen residential heists

Even locked residential garages are no match for Portland bike thieves. Here’s an email we received a few weeks ago from a victim in southeast whose garage was broken into:

“The thief pried open the garage door, but only partway. I have a crowbar jammed into the door, so he was only able to open it to knee-height. Once inside, he sawed through one of the structural supports to which my girlfriend’s bikes were U-bolted, and dragged them out. I have a burglar alarm, but he was able to grab the bikes and go within the 15 minutes it took the police to get there. I have lots of power tools, but he only took the bikes.”

It has even influenced the music scene

And our final item in this bike-theft-in-Portland-is-outta-control roundup is about a band. Yes, bike theft is so pervasive in Portland it has even inspired a band name. Bike Thief is a fledgling group put together by recent Portland transplant Febian Perez. I contacted him to learn more about the name:

“I moved to Portland in June 2012, and almost immediately had my bike stolen. I was fooling around with band names at the same time, with the name ‘Garage Sale’ being the dominating idea in my head. However getting my bike stolen really bummed me out, so I stayed home and watched movies at my new place… one of them being The Bicycle Thief, which is a rad Italian film. I Googled “bike protection bike thief” and “portland bike thieves” and quickly realized how big of a bike theft problem we had in town. I then connected the creative dots and figured that naming my band something so despised could really be a good way to make a memorable name.”

Something needs to be done. Just this week we started kicking around the idea of a “bike theft summit” in Portland. Given how many ways bike theft is impacting our city, it’s time to raise the level of attention to the issue. Maye we should get some advice, or at least a keynote speech, from little Roxy Thompson?

What do you think? What’s the best way to address this problem?

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