A Cycle of Crime: 

Patterns of Bicycle Theft in Eugene

The remains of Gabe Keet’s bike, locked to a post within his apartment’s bike garage. The garage is locked 24 hours and has cameras recording the area.

By Gino Savaria

Jan. 7, 2022

Gabe Keet walked into his apartment building’s bike garage, his gaze falling upon a lonely black BMX frame bound indefinitely to a post by contorted steel.

“There are the remnants of my bicycle,” said Keet.

The passion project that had cost Keet, a University of Oregon student, two months and over $900 was torn from him in moments.

“It broke my heart,” said Keet. “It felt like I got violated in a sense because they broke into my apartment building and took something that I spent so long building. It really, for a while, killed my passion for biking.”

Keet’s experience is no anomaly in Eugene. Bikes are stolen regularly in this gold-level bike-friendly community. In fact, according to data from the Eugene Police Department and the FBI, the city’s mean rate of reported bike theft from 2014 to 2020 was six times higher than the national average. While this trend has been decreasing, the numbers grew significantly during the pandemic.

The graph above plots data reported by the Eugene police department and the FBI. From 2014 to 2020, the city’s annual per capita bike theft was six times higher than the national average.

The city attracts bikers and, with it, bike thieves, said Euge Police Department Program Manager Jeff Blondé.

“I don’t know what it is about Eugene. There is a general feeling of lawlessness in certain parts of it,” said Keet, as he watched a man walk down the street with a bike frame slung over his shoulder.

Arresting individuals will likely not lead to a significant decrease in bike thefts, said University of Oregon Police Sgt. Bo Macovis. Lane County’s penal system suffers from a shortage of beds, leading to the premature release of offenders that commit less heinous crimes like theft.

“Even for a misdemeanor crime, there’s a lot of people who are arrested and lodged, getting out within 24 hours, and back to being able to commit the same crimes that got them in there,” said Macovis.

Like most crimes, bike theft results from diverse motivations and complex socioeconomic systems. The Center for Problem-Oriented Policing’s research on bike theft analyzed three common forms of the crime– joyriding, flipping for cash and fulfilling an order. The first two tend to exploit poorly secured bikes, while the latter approach requires more effort.

Blondé said the situation he sees the most are crimes of opportunity. Many bicyclists come to Eugene from areas where they did not need to protect their bikes as closely and therefore may be less educated on where and how they should lock them.

According to University of Oregon bike mechanic Eliza Lawrence, this is often the situation for the clients that she helps. She said students come to the campus Bike Center frequently missing parts because they either did not lock their bikes properly or left them out in low trafficked areas overnight.

Still, even a well-secured bike may be at risk. Tools like hydraulic bottle jacks and hacksaws are relatively small investments for a thief looking to get a hold of a nicer bike. Macovis recalled an officer reviewing footage of a thief cutting a lock in the middle of the day. The video captured pedestrians avoiding sparks as they flew 20 feet behind the perpetrator’s saw.

“I would say students should just not have nice bikes. We have a lot of students who come in and either have nice bikes, and they know it or have nice bikes, and they don’t know it,” said Lawrence.

Whether or not their bikes are nice, Lawrence encouraged owners to register them with Project 529, a database of serial numbers aimed at discouraging bike theft. Although saving serial numbers and any other proof of ownership is a critical step in reclaiming a stolen bike, it is not a guarantee. Often, a bike thief will remove identifiable characteristics if possible or simply swap the parts out until it is virtually unrecognizable from the original, said Macovis.

For this reason, Keet said he did not register his bike or even report the theft, expressing his uncertainty in the police’s ability to find the individual parts he lost. Instead, he called for Eugene to focus its efforts on prevention.

“Step it up, like fix the infrastructure in the city, and that’ll help with this kind of high theft rate. Make systems to help the people who are in need, and they won’t need to steal bikes from us,” said Keet. “Eugene needs to put more lights on the streets, things like that just because it’s so dark, it’s so easy to commit crimes.”

Kelsey Moore, the community engagement coordinator for Eugene’s Transportation Planning team, said that the city does consider how a location may benefit from changes to lighting when planning renovations. Recent construction on South Willamette Street aimed to improve pedestrian infrastructure including additional lighting.

Despite a surge of cases at the start of the pandemic, the number of bikes reported stolen each year has dwindled since 2014.

“The numbers are looking much better than last year, recovery is going up a bit, and theft is going down,” said Blondé.

Exactly what has led to this decline is unknown, but Eugene’s bait bike program may play a role. The operation has been around for several decades and is implemented sporadically. Ultimately, the goal is to sew a seed of uncertainty, discouraging further theft, because any bike could be a bait bike, said Blondé.

Since its theft this summer, Keet has replaced his stolen bike, sacrificing some closet space for peace of mind.

“It was a big setback,” said Keet, “but, in the end, tomorrow comes, and I still love biking.”