Underworld Economics: Why Are So Many Bikes Stolen? What Happens to Them?

Bicycle with orange tires against a white brick wall

Tiffany Nutt / Unsplash 

Who Stole My Bike? Is it the Bike Mafia?

In some cities or neighborhoods, so many bicycles get stolen it's an epidemic. At first I believed stealing a bike was mostly a crime of opportunity - some ethically-challenge person making the decision on the spot to steal a bike left in some secluded corner - but the more you research the topic, the more you find out that there's almost a bike mafia operating in some places, with skilled thieves using good lock-cracking equipment, or even sometimes stealing whole bike racks to better take the time to unlock each bike individually later in some secret lair.

Why Are So Many Bikes Stolen?

This chart shows visually the probable reason why so many bikes are being stolen:

Bike theft chart showing risk return tradeoff of crime

While a stolen bike probably isn't that valuable, what matters is that in most places, there's basically no chances that you will be caught. While thieves aren't always the most rational people, they are rational enough to know that a low-paying risk-free crime can pay a lot if you do it enough times to compensate for the low value of each stolen booty.

And I'm not kidding about the absence of enforcement and low risk of stealing bikes. Here's a NYT journalist filming himself stealing his own bike in New York City to see how people who see him will react. You gotta see this to believe it. He even uses powertools and does it near cops:

What Happens to the Stolen Bikes?

So once a bike has been stolen (hopefully not yours), what happens to it? Well, it all depends on the level of sophistication and professionalism of the thief or thieves. The most amateur ones, which might be homeless or drug addicts looking for a few bucks for their next meal or hit, will sell bikes for a small faction of what they are worth. They'll sell it on the street, or exchange it directly for what they need, or fence it at a pawn shop or maybe a flea market or whatever.

More professional thieves want to get better prices, and they have more bikes to sell, so they can't use the same strategy. They target more expensive bikes and will often try to resell them online to get a better price. They usually will go sell bikes where there's a bigger market for them, so they might sell a bike from San Fancisco in Los Angeles.

What Can Be Done to Reduce Bike Theft

As with all crimes, the best way to reduce occurrences is to make it not worth the criminal's while. You'll probably always have some crimes of opportunities from amateurs, but the pros would probably reconsider if they felt they could really get in trouble and that the money from the bikes isn't worth the trouble. But that's easier said than done... the police has limited resources, and they can't do everything. Maybe if one day they spend less time on the war on drugs they can spend more on property theft? If few big organized networks steal a large fraction of the bikes, dismantling them could solve a big chunk of the problem at once. Who knows...

And just for fun, here's one video that looks staged, but it's still probably a fantasy of many who have gotten their bikes stolen. Let's just say that it involves paintball guns... (Don't actually do anything like this, report all thefts to the police... just don't expect them to do much if it's your bike.)

Via The FLIZ Pedal-Less Bike Concept