To find stolen bikes, Philly owners look to Facebook

Owner Jeff Harris (right) and apprentice mechanic Kevin Bass hold up cut bike locks at Frankinstien Bike Worx on Spruce Street.

To Taylor Henry, a bike is a way of life. It’s how he pays his rent. It’s how he affords groceries.

So when Henry, a 20-year-old courier for the food delivery site Caviar, gets his bike stolen, he’s left powerless.

That’s happened “plenty of times” during his 12 years living in Philadelphia, said the Mayfair resident, and the impact is always dire.

“My bike is my paycheck. … Once you get your bike stolen, you have to make up for it by paying for a new lock and equipment,” Henry said. “It makes you start falling behind on bills.”

For those who don’t use their bike as a way to make a living, it still can be essential — bikes are the primary source of transportation to work for more people per capita in Philadelphia than in the other 10 biggest cities in the United States, according to the 2016 American Community Survey.

And it’s disabling when these ways of getting around, which cost several hundred dollars on average, are stolen. As of Dec. 25, there were about 1,560 reported bike thefts in the city in 2017, with the most thefts occurring in parts of Fairmount, Center City West, and North Philadelphia, according to data provided by Philadelphia Police. Nearly 1,800 bike thefts were reported in 2016 and about 2,000 the year before.

Those numbers pale compared to the actual bike thefts, according to John Boyle, a research director at the Bike Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. He puts the real number four to five times higher.

And once they’re stolen, they’re difficult to get back.

Captain Krista Dahl-Campbell of the 26th district, concedes that bike theft is a low-priority call, and one that won’t get immediate attention if a homicide or armed robbery occurred nearby.

There’s a slim chance of finding a stolen bike too, Dahl-Campbell said.

Bike owners’ sense of frustration could be eased by Philadelphia Stolen Bikes, a Facebook group of more than 5,300 members who use it as an alternative reporting service and source of support when their bikes go missing.

Posting there is the first thing Henry does, having had a bad experience reporting a theft to police when he was a teen.

Jeff Harris, one of the group’s administrators and owner of Frankinstien Bike Worx on Spruce Street near 16th, said the Facebook group fills a need spurred by the city’s inadequate response.

“It’s like the Wild West out here,” he said.

Every day about five people post about a stolen bike on the page, which was started in 2011, though only about 5 percent of the posts lead to owners’ reunions with their bikes, Harris added.

Cyclists have reached out in vain to City Councilmen Allan Domb, Kenyatta Johnson and Mark Squilla to press for a greater police response, he added. Representatives for Domb and Squilla said the councilmen don’t remember discussing bike theft, and Johnson’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

 

Besides providing income and transportation, bikes carry sentiment for many riders — like Monika Creidie, who rode a green Raleigh for 43 years until it was stolen  Oct. 19 from 15th and Pine Streets. Her parents gave it to her when she turned 9.

Creidie, 53, of Northern Liberties, didn’t report the theft because it “wouldn’t have been helpful,” she said. Per a friend’s suggestion, she turned to the Facebook group.

Members of the page were supportive, but she’s not optimistic about its recovery, she added.

“People would say that it’s nice, and I would say I’ve had this since I was 9,” Creidie said. “The amazement on their faces … I’ll miss that.”

Finding a bike through the group isn’t impossible, though — Josa Lazas, 32, of Pennsport, credits the page for the return of his Surly Steamroller.

Lazas posted in the Facebook group in August after his blue and pink bike was stolen near The Dolphin Tavern on Broad and Tasker streets. It was worth more than $1,000, he said.

Camera icon TIM TAI
Josa Lazas stands for a portrait with his bicycle outside the Dolphin Tavern along Broad Street. His bike was stolen outside the bar in August, but he recovered it in November with the help of the Facebook group, Philadelphia Stolen Bikes.

Three months later, someone replied with a link to his bike for sale on Craigslist. Lazas coordinated with police to stage an undercover pickup, leading to a reunion just after Thanksgiving.

“[The] Philadelphia Stolen Bikes group is a gem and … I think as soon as it was stolen, I went and posted in there because that’s always been … [a] reliable community.”

Dahl-Campbell urges people to report bike thefts to police. The Bike Coalition lists it as the first step in its quick guide of “What to do if your bike is stolen,” and Philadelphia Stolen Bikes’ description also encourages it.

But there are preventative measures that Dahl-Campbell suggests, too, including documenting the bike’s serial number and any distinguishing features.

“The easier it is for us to identify it’s your bike, the easier it is to give back to you,” Dahl-Campbell said.

Officer Shaun McPhillips of the 9th District has reunited 12 people with their bikes by monitoring the Facebook group. He said a detective is assigned to every reported theft, but having a “solvability factor,” like a video of the crime or a witness, increases the chances of recovery.

“We investigate as much as we can,” McPhillips said. “A lot of it is, bikes are stolen and there’s nothing to go on. It’s just like a dead end.”

Proper locking can also help avoid bike theft. Shelly S. Walker, owner of Fairmount Bike Works, knows from costly experience that it’s wise to loop a cable through the bike’s front wheel, as well as a use a U-lock to cement the bike’s frame and rear wheel to a bike post. The Bike Coalition also has a guide on how to properly lock a bike.

Citywide solutions, though, are more ambiguous. Walker said bike shops play a role in spotting stolen bikes and suggested someone ought to create a privately run database for shops to search if they suspect a bike is stolen. Similarly, Boyle of the Bike Coalition thinks a citywide database for registering bikes would increase rates of recovery.

“I think that could really help,” Walker said.

Until city officials become more proactive, Harris said, cyclists will maintain the same attitude toward bike theft: resignation.

“If someone who owns a million-dollar condo gets ripped off or one of their buddies from City Hall gets ripped off, they’ll pay attention,” he added. “But I feel like we’re second-class citizens as bikers. … This is a major problem.”