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Bicycle-friendly Seattle not so charming when it comes to bike theft

Bike theft is a growing problem in bike-friendly Seattle. (AP)

Seattle is generally considered a bicycle-friendly city. But the propensity for bike theft is changing that perspective.

The number of reported bicycles stolen in Seattle per year has skyrocketed since 2008 when just fewer than 500 bikes were taken from their owners.

In 2016, 1,132 were bikes were reported stolen, according to data from the Seattle Police Department.

More than 200 have already been reported stolen since the beginning of this year.

Brock Howell, with Bicycle Security Advocates, was quick to note that data is from only one department and does not include, for example, the University of Washington Police Department. Furthermore, Howell says, citing a national survey of crime, for every one bike reported stolen, five go unreported.

“About half of cyclists have been impacted by bike theft,” he said.

That’s why Howell is taking action.

Earlier this month, Howell was on a panel of other bike advocates, law enforcement, and politicians as they discussed what can be done about the growing problem.

Though bicycle theft isn’t a top priority compared to, say, gun violence, “everything else pales in comparison to its percentage growth,” Howell said.

Of course, the city’s growing population contributes to the rise in bike theft. Seattle, we found out last week, saw a 3.1 percent population increase in 2016. That’s not a reason to ignore the problem, however.

“We certainly have seen increased thefts over eight-plus years,” Howell said. “That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t address bike theft.”

It’s about more than just lowering the rate of theft for Howell. A victim of bike theft himself, Howell says such a negative experience can deter someone from buying another bike, or getting into cycling altogether. That, he says, is also bad for the economy, as fewer people will spend money at bike shops.

For a city in which so many people support the idea of alternative transportation, it’s somewhat of a surprise more isn’t being done to address the issue. Howell says he’d like to see one Seattle officer dedicated to the problem — not much to ask, he says, for a department that employed 1,376 sworn officers in 2016.

Who’s responsible for bike theft and what can be done?

There’s at least some correlation to bike theft and illegal drugs, Howell says. Addicts are fueling their habit by stealing is part of the problem.

“It is a crime of opportunity and the bike serves as its own getaway vehicle,” he said.

People purchasing those stolen bikes are also part of the problem. Some may not know they are buying a stolen bike, but Howell says people’s need to save money will blind them from the reality.

Howell says people need to do a better job of documenting their bicycle, by posting information on websites such as Bike Index. All too often, he says, someone reports a stolen bike but lacks any evidence of ownership.

Being more careful, too, will help people avoid becoming victims of theft — simply lock it up. However, that doesn’t always deter criminals, Howell says.

The bicycle enthusiast believes the city can cut down on thefts even with a boom population.

“We don’t see as many car thefts anymore,” he said. “That used to be a big issue. At one point, there weren’t even VINs, and all that has changed.”

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