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Bike thefts jump during pandemic: ‘It’s a huge problem’

Police have seen about a 6% increase in thefts this year, while the Chicago Stolen Bike Registry has seen a nearly 50% spike.

Parts of a bike sit chained to a bike rack on North Clark Street near West Thorndale Avenue in Rogers Park.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

As the demand for bikes has skyrocketed during the coronavirus pandemic, Chicago has experienced an uptick in bike thefts this year, newly released statistics show.

So far this year, about 208 bikes have been stolen per month within city limits — an increase from the 195 monthly thefts reported in 2019, according to data obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times. Many more are not reported, and most are not recovered.

The trend has been felt among bike advocates across the city. The Chicago Stolen Bike Registry, which allows people to report bike thefts so others can keep an eye out for them, told the Sun-Times they’ve received a 48% increase in submissions through October, compared to 2019.

Chicago Police Sgt. Pete Best, of the 1st District, says the bike thefts are part of “a nationwide epidemic,” and that people are stealing the bikes so they can resell them for a quick buck, rather than for personal use.

His district, which covers the Loop and the Near North Side, has seen 12 bike thefts since Sept. 16, prompting him to send a community alert to residents warning them how to best secure their bikes.

“A lot of the bikes are being stolen for financial gain. We’ve noticed an uptick in bikes being pawned,’’ Best said.

He said he’s seen more bike thefts reported in an online theft reporting system. Those wanted in the crimes are “are repeat offenders, these guys are not doing it for pure joy; they’re doing it because they’re dependent on some sort of drugs, and they’re selling them for cash or drugs.”

Best says when a stolen bike pops up on an online marketplace, undercover officers will conduct a “buy-bust transaction” to get the bike back and track down the thief. Otherwise, detectives have to scour pawn shops for stolen goods, including the bikes.

Used bikes in high demand

Christina Whitehouse, founder of Bike Lane Uprising, an advocacy group that tracks bike lane obstructions, attributes the spike to a shortage of bikes available at legitimate shops, as a worldwide surge in bike riding has left manufacturers struggling to meet demand. The result, she says, is a boon in the used bike market and a spike in prices.

“Right now, it’s a huge problem that the bikes are being stolen, because there’s so many people in a level of desperation that are just trying to maintain safe transit to get to and from work and critical resources around the city,” Whitehouse said. “They’re trying to avoid public transit and also don’t have the income to be riding public transit, so the bikes are the only opportunity they have.”

Between January and June, CTA ridership dropped to about one-third of what it had been before the pandemic, data shows.

Jack Cafferty’s hybrid Trek bike was stolen in early November from his Lake View porch.
Provided
Jack Cafferty
Provided

For Jack Cafferty, 23, his blue hybrid Trek bike was the perfect mode of transportation over the summer, up until Nov. 4, when someone stole it off the back porch of his Lake View East apartment, where it was locked. His upstairs neighbors’ bikes had been stolen the night before.

Cafferty said he had been riding his bike in place of taking Ubers in an effort to save money and travel in a socially distant manner.

“I’m definitely a little angry that my bike was gone. I had just bought it earlier in the year, and Chicago is a really bike-friendly place to ride around,” Cafferty said. “It was a little disappointing and upsetting when it was gone, but I guess the lesson learned is you need to keep it inside or out of sight, because locks can only do so much.”

‘Desperate times’

Since then, Kevin Womac, owner of Boulevard Bikes in Logan Square, 2769 N. Milwaukee Ave., says the pandemic has made it hard to keep his shop stocked. He says he got fewer than 10 new bikes in between June and September, when he would have preferred to have about 100.

Because many of even the smallest bike parts are made in disparate factories across the world, one disruption in the supply chain can cause a meltdown, Womac said.

President Donald Trump’s tariff on Chinese-made goods hasn’t helped, either, as manufacturers have left longtime factories in China for newer, less experienced facilities in Vietnam, Cambodia and elsewhere.

Womac is not sure bike buyers will turn to stolen bikes to make up for the manufacturing shortage.

“Certainly, there’s an increase in demand, but most people that are savvy enough to want to buy a bike are not going to buy a stolen one. I think it’s more that people don’t have those part-time jobs they used to have, so they’re resorting to any kind of stuff they can get away with.

“These are desperate times,” Womac said.