SF Cyclotouring

Ride reports and other ramblings from a San Francisco cyclist.


Why a city-wide bike rental program in San Francisco is doomed to fail...

So, it seems that San Francisco is considering implementing a public bike-rental program similar to those used in Paris and other fancy European cities...

Unfortunately, this will fail.

From sfbg.com:

In the wide world of illegal activity, bike thievery seems to occupy a criminal sweet spot. It is a relatively painless crime to commit, and city officials do little to stop it. As McCloskey readily admitted, bike theft is not a priority for law enforcement, which he said has its hands full with more serious crimes.

"We make it easy for them," McCloskey said of bike thieves. "The DA doesn't do tough prosecutions. All the thieves we've busted have got probation. They treat it like a petty crime."

Debbie Mesloh, a spokesperson for District Attorney Kamala Harris, said most bike thieves are not prosecuted, but that's because they are juveniles or they qualify for the city's pretrial diversion program. The diversion program offers counseling in lieu of prosecution for first-time nonviolent offenders. Bike thieves qualify for it if they steal a bike worth $400 or less. Mesloh said the District Attorney's Office prosecutes felony bike thefts, but it doesn't get very many of those cases.

"The DA takes all cases of theft seriously," Mesloh wrote in an e-mail.

As for the police, McCloskey was equally blunt. "You can't take six people off a murder to investigate a bike theft. [Bike theft investigations] are not an everyday thing. No one is full-time on bike theft. As far as going out on stings and operations, I haven't heard of one in the last year. Bike theft has gone to the bottom of the list."

McCloskey's comments were particularly interesting in light of the conversation I had with Veysey, whom I met at the Bike Hut, an off-kilter wood shack near AT&T Park that appears as if it might collapse under the weight of the bicycle parts hanging on its walls. Veysey has a loose blond ponytail and greasy hands. He wields a wrench and apocalyptic environmental rhetoric equally well.

"Bikes are one of the four commodities of the street — cash, drugs, sex, and bikes," Veysey told me. "You can virtually exchange one for another."

Veysey believes bike thefts are helping prop up the local drug market. It sounds far-fetched, but it's a notion McCloskey and other bike theft experts echoed. The National Bike Registry, a company that runs the nation's largest database for stolen bikes, says on its Web site, "Within the drug trade, stolen bicycles are so common they can almost be used as currency." Veysey believes the police could actually take a bite out of crime in general by making bike theft a bigger priority in the city.

So, given these arguments, putting those rental bikes out there is essentially the
same as tossing cash out on the street.


Blogger Fritz said...

I've wondered about the theft aspect of this as well...

4:03 PM  
Anonymous beth h said...

Years ago, Portland was one of the first US Cities to try a European-styled Yellow Bike program: fix up old beater bikes, make the run; and paint them a hideous faded-lemon color that would render them at once recognizable AND too ugly to steal. Place them at intersections throughout the city. People could ride one to their destination and leave it there to be used by anoyher passerby.

The bikes were "launched" every month at First Thursday Artwalks and other civic events, to great ballyhoo and applause. Within hours of each launching, most of the bikes disappeared, never to be seen again.

Why did it fail?

Because uber-hip Portland is still an American city. And in America, the idea of collective, public ownership Does Not Fly. Most of the bikes were "liberated" by the poorest of the poor; they waited by the dozens at each public launching, leapt out of the shadows and wrestled the bikes away from Artwalk-goers and sped off with them into the night. Racks and bags and locks were attached, and suddenly the bikes were ferociously guarded private property.

For a period of time, a few enterprising folks rounded up the bikes and sold them to get money for drugs and food. A number of the bikes wound up at the bottom of the Willamette River. A friend of mine, to prove the point of the program's dismal failure, "liberated" one of the nicer bikes -- an old Raleigh touring bike -- brazed on canti bosses, added racks and fenders, and took the still-ugly yellow bike on a cross-country tour before selling it in New York as a chic collectible, funding his bus ticket back to Portland.

After a year or two of diminishing returns the program was officially scrapped, never to be repeated.

Rental bikes are only a step up from a Public Bike program, and I suspect that unless the program is aggressively safeguarded to the point of unwieldiness, it will fail. That's why no rental program has yet been attempted in Portland, and the Yellow Bike program is dead for good here as well.

10:17 AM  

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