If you'd like to steal a bike—if you are not bothered by the moral ramifications of doing so—and you live somewhere crowded and urban like New York City, go ahead and do it. Statistically, you are almost certain to get away with it. Why? Nobody cares about other people's bikes, and nobody cares about bike thieves.
Here, Filmmaker Casey Neistat embarks on an experiment, stealing his own bike, loudly and obviously, in the light of day:
The video is old, but he just redid the experiment for the New York Times, with similar results.
Shades of Kitty Genovese, stabbed to death outside her apartment in 1964, while neighbors and onlookers watched and did nothing. She screamed for help, and they did nothing. Four decades later, a homeless man intervened when a knife-wielding maniac attacked a woman in Queens and was stabbed himself instead. He bled to death while pedestrians walked by.
They all assumed that it wasn't their business, and that someone else would take responsibility for the bleeding, pleading woman. Nobody did, and psychologists called it the bystander effect. Or the diffusion of responsibility.
Clearly, there is no stabbing involved in the crimes emulated above. The scale and moral decrepitude of the crime is much, much smaller. And much, much more ignorable. It is easier to diffuse, easier to bystand.
I do not know what I would do if I saw someone hacking off a bike lock by a subway stop. Especially if he was large and muscular-looking. If he were smaller than I, perhaps I'd say "Hey man, what are you doing?" Perhaps I wouldn't, if I were late for something.
Of course, the goal should be a society without stolen bikes. And indeed, such a society exists! I was in Copenhagen last year, where I saw a number of bikes leaning on buildings, unlocked. Then I saw more, just tossed over on the grass. I asked a Dane what the deal was.
Nobody really wanted the bikes, it turns out, because everyone that wanted one already had one. Or had access to one, through the city's bike-share system. No bike thief could make any serious money selling bikes. Besides, income equality was much greater in Denmark, and the have-nots were not nearly as destitute or desperate as those in a city like New York. The incentive for organized bike-stealing was simply not there.
Sure, bikes got stolen, sometimes, said the Dane. But that was mostly the work of drunk kids or jerks.
This may be an oversimplification. But the general principle rings true: in a more equal society, and in one that takes pains to provide the services that a populace demands, thieving drops!
You can't fundamentally alter the crowd psychology of human beings. But we can try to make sure that everyone who wants a bike has access to one. We must Denmarkify our societies.