People are more likely to feel that bicycling is a safe, effective means of getting around when stolen bicycles are recovered and abandoned bikes are removed. This also makes stealing bicycles less attractive. In DC, the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) and Department of Public Works (DPW) are the agencies that work together to provide these behind-the-scenes services.
Thieves commonly go after tires, seats, and even frames from locked bicycles. Various factors may make theft more feasible: weak locks, sparse nearby foot traffic, poor lighting, or long-term storage (though of course this doesn't excuse theft in any way). When bicycles are securely locked, it's more difficult to steal the entire bike or its expensive parts, and a thief may look for a bike that's easier to steal instead.
Here's what happens when a bicycle or bicycle part is stolen in DC.
DPW removes abandoned bikes
Sometimes people abandon their bike where it's locked when it's missing one or more parts that make it unusable or uneconomical to repair. DPW relies on the public to report these abandoned bicycles online or by contacting 311. The service request requires information about missing parts or other indications that show the bicycle is likely abandoned.
When someone submits a 311 request about an abandoned bike, DPW puts a sticker on the bike stating that the bike has been reported as abandoned. The sticker notes that the bike will be removed within 10 days if not claimed. Although DPW performs this service, the stickers show the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) logo because this used to be a DDOT responsibility.
Anyone who believes their bike has been removed by DPW should call 311 and provide a description of the bicycle. If DPW finds a match among the bikes in its inventory, DPW will contact the owner to return the bike, if it's still in their possession. If DPW has already donated the bike, DC Office of Risk Management will issue compensation to the owner.
DPW Director Chris Shorter said that removing abandoned bicycles from public spaces is part of DPW’s mission to keep the District looking its best. It also frees up space to lock other bicycles.
The agency removes abandoned bicycles from poles, bike racks, and other places and stores them for one month to give owners the opportunity to claim them. After the month is up, DPW donates unclaimed, salvagable bikes to Bikes for the World, a nonprofit organization that offers free bicycles and training to people in need around the world.
DPW removed 792 abandoned bicycles in fiscal year 2017 and 658 bicycles in fiscal year 2018.
MPD recovers stolen and abandoned bicycles
The DC Metropolitan Police Department conducts a different mission when it comes to stolen and abandoned bicycles. Bicycles are among the many types of property that MPD recovers regularly, including motor vehicles, scooters, ATVs, cameras, and cell phones. MPD recovers hundreds of bicycles each year.
According to MPD, these bikes are inventoried by its Evidence Control Branch, which then posts photos online. After 90 days in MPD’s possession, MPD considers the bicycle to be abandoned and reserves the right to dispose of it.
MPD may use information such as a bike registry to locate a bicycle’s owner. MPD encourages residents to register their bikes with the National Bike Registry, which combined with 529 Garage to form a single registry.
MPD auctions unclaimed property through GovDeals or donates them to nonprofit organizations.
Beyond recovering bicycles, MPD also arrests bicycle thieves to prevent them from stealing again and also to deter others from committing similar thefts. During calendar years 2016 and 2017, MPD arrested 44 and 56 suspects for bicycle theft, respectively. This year through November 20, 2018, MPD has made 32 arrests for bicycle theft.
Bicycle owners and the DC government play key roles too
Nobody wants to have their bicycle or its parts taken. We bicycle owners can do our part by using secure locks, carefully choosing where and how we lock our bikes, registering our bikes, and taking prompt action if our bike is stolen.
It’s also helpful to understand and use the services provided by DPW and MPD. Together, we can reduce bike thefts, clean up abandoned bikes in public space, and increase the possibility of bicycles being returned to their rightful owners.