An Investigation into Bike Theft and How You Can Help

Understanding bike theft is essential to creating more livable and sustainable cities, but the comprehensive data we need doesn’t exist. Bike Index is partnering with UCSB and UC Davis to investigate bike theft and its impact on transportation and people’s lives.

It’s no surprise that bike riding contributes to more livable and walkable cities, carries a host of health benefits, and is one of the most effective ways for individuals to reduce their global warming footprint. When city planners and transportation specialists improve the urban infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists, it builds the local economy and creates a more sustainable future — one less reliant on single-driver automobiles.

In 2014, a study of 24 California cities shed some light on the relationship between urban street design and public health. It revealed that compact and connected street networks not only increased walking, biking, and transit use, but were also correlated with reduced rates of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease among city residents — and those are just the health benefits of more walkable and bike-friendly cities.

City plans that incorporate walkable spaces have also been shown to improve community sentiment, public safety, and foot traffic for local businesses to thrive. And, commuting via bicycle reduces one’s CO2 output 3x more than becoming a vegetarian (including the additional greenhouse gas emissions from raising beef), and nearly 4x more than having one fewer child. All that to say…the benefits of bike-friendly and walkable cities are multi-faceted and significant. From what we’ve learned chasing down stolen bikes every day, we know bike theft has a huge impact on cyclists, but we want to investigate this further and understand its impact on policy, transportation, and cycling adoption. This is our objective in our ongoing study with UCSB and an upcoming study with UC Davis.

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The Current Statistics on Bike Theft

Despite the benefits of bike riding for transportation, it seems apparent that bike theft is a deterrent to people making the switch. After all, when your bike is more than 4x as likely to be stolen than your car, your mode of transportation becomes a lot less reliable.

A 2015 Montreal Study seems to support this theory. In more bike-friendly cities where bicycles were most popular, the ratio of bicycle theft per owner was higher – leaving a challenging crux between creating urban spaces that encourage cycling while discouraging bicycle theft.

According to the FBI, over 157k bicycles were reported stolen in the U.S. in 2019 (3.1% of all larceny thefts). The FBI values these bikes and their stolen parts around $350 million a year, but this value only accounts for those bikes reported stolen. It’s unclear exactly how many bike thefts occur without being reported to police, but anecdotal evidence and our own experience show that it’s a common occurrence.

For example, of the 11,504 bikes reported stolen on Bike Index in 2019, only 75% of them (8,591) had a police report number. Of course, this is not a definitive sample to reflect all bike thefts, but an estimated 25% rate of underreported thefts within our own numbers is something worth noting.

Accounting for unreported bike thefts, some estimate the total number near 342k, while others estimate nearly 2 million bike thefts annually.

A New Study on Bike Theft

These unknown and unmeasured factors skew the little data that’s available and make it difficult to get a clear image of the prevalence of bike theft. As the number of people who ride bikes increases (from 48.9 million in 2019 to 52.73 million in 2020), accurate statistics, figures, and reports should be made available so we can determine who’s being affected by bike theft and how to best prevent it.

That’s why we feel a new study on bike theft is necessary. We think bicycle theft impacts the adoption of cycling for transportation, but most of our data is anecdotal. In our own survey in 2017, nearly half of the participants (47%) indicated that the theft of their bike impacted their ability to get to and from work. 49% indicated that it would likely take longer than one month to replace their stolen bike, and 11% indicated that they weren’t buying a replacement bike at all.

Anecdotal evidence exists from the thousands of bikes we’ve recovered, with victims sharing the grief of losing a bike they’ve had for several years, to them indicating the anxiety they now feel from having to run or walk for transportation (and the additional safety concerns that arise from that). We need a way to quantify these stories into statistics that can make a real difference in city planning, policy, registration adoption, and recoveries.

How Bike Index Is Investigating Bike Theft

To start the investigation, we partnered with Trisalyn Nelson of UCSB for a study led by SPAR Lab, the research team that developed, to learn more about the effects of bike theft on bike theft victims. Together, we sent surveys to 10,000 victims of bike theft with the objective of learning more about the behavior of victims after the theft. The preliminary data seems to support our theory and supplement the results of our 2017 survey: that bike theft seems to reduce people’s use of bicycles.

From the first respondents of the 10,000, a lot of interesting data has been collected - but it needs to be further analyzed before the findings can be revealed.

Our Current Objective

Our next objective is to conduct a statistically rigorous survey to quantify how pervasive bike theft is. To do this, we’re working with Dillon Fitch, Co-Director of Bicycling Plus at UC Davis. With the measurable statistics of this second study and the results from the SPAR Lab survey, we hope to create a current and holistic view of the pervasiveness of bike theft and how it impacts people’s decisions to ride their bikes for transportation.

These comprehensive studies are still ongoing and require a significant amount of resources, but our hope is that the results will influence real change in our communities, cities, and policies.

How You Can Help

Whether you’ve been a victim of bike theft yourself, are one of the 58+ million cyclists who ride for transportation or recreation, or are someone connected to a bike business or organization, you can support our mission of quantifying bike theft to keep bikes safe and accessible.

Any donation helps us further this mission and is tax deductible.

Click here to donate today