Dude, where's my bike?

Patrick Symmes had a bike. Then it got stolen. So he got another bike, and that got stolen, too. He discusses his journey delving into the underground stolen economy of bikes.

Kai Ryssdal: Consider for just a second the urban bicyclist. Two wheels are increasingly popular as a mode of transportation in big cities. But now, consider the bike. Increasingly popular as a thing to steal.

Patrick Symmes' bike was stolen, as was his next one and the next one, and four more after that. So he decided to do something about it and he told his tale in this month's Outside Magazine. Patrick, welcome to the program.

Patrick Symmes: It's a pleasure.

Ryssdal: This was -- the only word that comes to mind -- is an epic saga. Seven bikes -- New York, San Francisco, Portland, cross-country, police. It's crazy.

Symmes: I was burning up with rage! I got my bike stolen, then I got another bike stolen. I just couldn't sleep at night. I was staying up late watching the surveillance footage of my bike being stolen 'cause there are so many cameras in New York City. Finally, I thought I had stumbled on a solution, a way to catch bike thief in America.

Ryssdal: All right, well go ahead because there a lot of bike thieves out there as we learn in the course of this article. Tell us what you did.

Symmes: We are entering the age of cheap GPS trackers -- and they're getting tiny, they're getting cheap. So I started putting them under the seat of bicycles -- effectively bait bicycles -- and leaving them out. And what happens, the bike gets stolen, you can actually track them on the Internet (assuming it doesn't short circuit in the rain, the device doesn't fail, this happens sometimes). But in the end, I was able to deliberately get seven bicycles stolen around the country and track down the thieves sometimes.

Ryssdal: The thing that struck me about this piece, the thing that I really learned, was the degree to which bicycles are one of the main currencies out there in sort of an underground economy. You have this great line: You've got cash, sex, drugs and bicycles fueling this economy -- only one of which is left outside locked up.

Symmes: Yeah, we're a little careless about these bicycles, starting with me. I put these sort of thin locks on them and then, boom, you're just contributing to somebody's drug habit. Police told me 90 percent of the thieves they catch are drug addicts.

Ryssdal: The thing that resonates to me about this story is that everybody's had a bike. Even if you don't ride now as an adult, you had a bike when you were a kid. You know that, the feeling you get when you're on your bike and you're just going and you can do whatever you want -- and then somebody takes it.

Symmes: It's an innocent, sweet feeling. And getting robbed of a bicycle is so personal, it just burns people up. As I worked on this story I was amazed over and over again -- everyone sort of went hugely out of their way to help me. They're like what can I do to help catch bike thieves. It's just a very personal crime. It's one of the most common forms of valuable property crime now.

Ryssdal: Tell me about your bike number six. This is the one, if I remember right, you bought it in San Francisco, right?

Symmes: Yeah. The San Francisco police officers will routinely bust bike thieves, but there's a shameless open-air market. Within a minute of arriving, I was being offered bicycles. I found a kid with a bike that was about the right size for me, a track bike, pretty fancy machine. I tried to bargain with him a little bit, and he said, 'I looked it up, this is a $700 bicycle.' So he wasn't even pretending to own the bike. So I got it for $125 cash, which the police in San Francisco told me was about $25 too much. I was never able to track down the owner of the bike notably 'cause the serial number is not listed anywhere. I still have that bike sitting in my garage and I wish I could find the owner.

Ryssdal: Well yeah, that's what got to me. You actually do a shout out in this magazine piece. You say, listen if you lost this or if it got stolen, call me with the serial number. We'll get it back to you.

Symmes: It's a black IRO Mark V, people.

Ryssdal: Patrick Symmes, his article in Outside magazine is called "Who Pinched My Ride?" Patrick, thanks a lot.

Symmes: Thank you, Kai.


Ryssdal: Read Patrick's article here.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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