I adored Copenhagen, the city of biking. I had one extra day and I spent it biking around till I was exhausted, enjoying the bike lanes that crisscrossed the city. I biked to the restaurants in the port area and ended up sharing a table with a Norwegian family who made sure I tasted every kind of herring, twice. (“Curry herring”, Denmark?) I biked all the way south to Christania, the original “Occupy” to see how it fared as a tourist attraction. I biked back through the rain, undeterred, as I felt safe in separated bike lines as families with kids’ wagons and shopping carts attached to their bikes whizzed past me. Biking is wonderful and I was determined to enjoy it for once in a city that prioritized biking. I’m all for biking and bikeable cities.
I fumed when my bike got stolen in college. Hey, I’m still angry. Biking is a great way to get around. Bike-friendly cities provide some of the best quality of life. And many cities that are getting awash in money, mostly from the tech industry, are doing more to install bike lanes. And as biking becomes a favored hobby, the same tech industry employees, many of whom are young, are buying more and more expensive bikes.
And these bikes are getting stolen more and more, reported the New York Times, so the San Francisco Police Department is now using “bait bikes” equipped with GPS to lure thieves to steal these bikes, which are on purpose made expensive enough so that the thieves can be charged with a felony.
The story was written so cheerily, and so clearly aimed at anyone who recognizes the anger one feels towards such petty crime, that one could almost forget what was actually happening.
Let me rephrase: in a city in which inequality is greatly increasing, in which those outside the tech industry are struggling to pay rents and deal with increasing cost of life, and in which flushed, moneyed tech employees are buying more and more expensive bikes (the article notes, can cost $10,000), those police are luring people to steal them by intentionally using bait bikes so expensive that the people tempted to steal them can be charged with felonies. If convicted, so that they can no longer vote in many states, and also are unemployable in large sectors of the economy for all practical reasons.
What could go wrong?
If you are still fuming at the memory of a bike being stolen (I am, even now) and wondering why these thieves should not get charged with felonies, ponder for a moment. [Added: an add other minor or major infractions for the next example: it’s not a perfect example.]Have you ever rolled through a stop sign? Have you failed to perfectly stop, ever? Rolling through stop signs puts people’s lives at risk and is done just as intentionally as stealing a bike. It’s more dangerous and destructive than stealing a bike. [Though it’s been pointed out by people who understand the laws better than I do that our criminal code does not view that as the same kind of intention as bike stealing. I don’t claim to be making a legal argument, but just trying to push our imagination politically.]
Sure, there is a cost to bike theft, and it is a problem. But there is also cost to rendering large numbers of people unemployable through felony convictions.
Now imagine a city in which areas in which tech workers lives were equipped with cameras that caught everyone who ever rolled through a stop sign. You got a felony charge, since the evidence was indisputable. You lost your job, and could never work in the same sector again. You can’t vote either. Maybe you have probation. Your life is ruined, forever, and fairly irrecoverably.
If you are rolling your eyes at the possibility, don’t take the legal argument at face value but ponder the spirit. Bike thieves are often people already without the choices and privileges most tech workers enjoy: we are now setting them up so that any little chance they may have at a regular income or civic participation (remember: can’t vote in many states either) is destroyed. This is how to set up race to worse situation for everyone.
I’m not arguing that bike stealing should be ignored. I’m absolutely sharing the outrage and yes, it is a problem. Sure, record those serial numbers. Get better locks. Check pawn shops. (Also, hey, cheap bikes are okay.) Yes, it sucks to have your bike stolen. But think: most people whose expensive bikes are stolen in San Francisco are annoyed and angry, as I was. Their lives? It goes on. But the perpetrator now faces a life outside the legitimate economy. What do you think he (usually a he) will end up doing to survive?
What would you do? Imagine yourself the bike thief, but not just as a fleeting moment, but a life location.
Bikeability is wonderful but it’s not the only thing that makes a city livable or great. Using technology to ease our lives (the ones with the expensive bikes) at cost of blindness to the lives and consequences for those on other side of the tracks ruins great cities a lot faster than lack of bike lanes.
I’m not denying anyone’s right to fume over a stolen bike, nor am I justifying street crime. What I’m arguing is that our individualized outrage over small-scale crime is hiding terrible policy effects, and that our “serves the thief right” knee-jerk response—quite understandable from an individual point of view—reflects distorted priorities that makes things worse for all of us in the long run. Similar to misguided three-strikes laws that saw some small-time criminals serve life sentences for minor thefts—like shoplifting— bait bikes designed to trigger felonies can waste lives and resources. Individual, momentary outrage feels good and justified, but its impacts, distorted through priorities aimed at appeasing us, rather than solving the problem, do not leave any of us better in the long run.