Philadelphia: America’s Worst City for Bike Thefts

Philadelphia is a great city for bike lovers — and an even better one for bike thieves.


Locks are no match for Philly’s bike thieves. Photography by Claudia Gavin

Ask the Smart People who intend to steer Philadelphia toward its rightful status as a world-class city, and they’ll all agree: Bikes are a huge part of that future. Less congestion, less pollution and a more physically active populace: Who can argue with that?

Philly has been ranked the number one major city for bike commuting; we’ve landed on the Top Bike-Friendly Cities in America list; new bike lanes are turning up everywhere. But with this increase in bikes has come a historic high for bike theft. The thefts have been on the rise for some time, according to data provided by the police department, climbing from 1,849 in 2011 to 2,122 in 2013. We’re on track to top that this year … and that’s just with the number of bike thefts that are reported.

“The actual number is three to four times higher,” says statistical analyst Tyler Dahlberg, who completed a study on the topic for the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia last year. Dahlberg found three bike-theft hot spots in the city, with the overall prize going to the neighborhood of the Drexel and Penn campuses. He adds that during the six-year time period he dissected, the monthly average of citywide thefts climbed from 130 to 160, with an overall loss of nearly $4 million in bikes. It’s enough to land Philly another top ranking: We’re the number one worst city in the U.S. for bike thievery.

What’s more, the thieves appear to be getting bolder all the time. Just ask Jessie Fritton, Food Trust employee and master’s student at Drexel, who walked out of her office in Suburban Station on a weekday afternoon in August to find that her bike had been stolen in broad daylight. (Think that’s nervy? One burglar flummoxed by a lock he came across near 15th and Spruce recently sliced right through the ­impenetrable-looking steel U rack, making off with both bike and lock.) So prevalent are such incidents that they’ve spawned a loosely organized but highly active Facebook group called Philadelphia Stolen Bikes, which boasts more than 2,600 members, helps locate purloined rides, and publicizes new techniques in theft.

When a distraught and bikeless Fritton posted a notice on PSB, a member soon found a just-listed online ad for the same bike. Fritton contacted the police, who actually conducted an undercover sting to catch the culprit and return the bike. “I couldn’t believe I got it back,” she says. Many victims aren’t so lucky.

Beyond social-media sleuthing, one tool that could be immensely helpful for bike owners (and law enforcement) in the fight against theft is a citywide bike registry, which would establish an official record of ownership. Police bust a thief with a warehouse full of bikes? They know whom to return them to. Wanna buy a bike off someone? Check the registry first to see if it’s been flagged as stolen. The idea isn’t a new one (a Temple University bike registry cut thefts by 50 percent since last year) but gained new momentum with the release of Dahlberg’s study. At this point, says police spokesman John Stanford, owners can register bikes directly with their local police districts, generally with a visit to the office. What’s needed, though, is a user-friendly citywide Internet database that would put the information right in front of police, owners, bike stores and prospective buyers.

Since there’s no sign that registry is coming soon, the best prevention is to keep your bike locked up, and properly: Most bikes that are stolen lack locks or are secured incorrectly. Don’t be a victim.

And maybe lean toward riding that rusty $200 Schwinn instead of, say, the $5,000 Pinarello. Just in case.

Originally published as “The Vanishing” in the October 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.