NYC man "steals" his own bike in front of police stations, etc, and very few damns are given

Filmmaker Casey Neistat writes in the NYT about his recurring project to steal his own bicycle in really obvious ways in places across New York, to see if anyone intervenes. Very few people do.

I recently spent a couple of days conducting a bike theft experiment, which I first tried with my brother Van in 2005. I locked my own bike up and then proceeded to steal it, using brazen means — like a giant crowbar — in audacious locations, including directly in front of a police station. I wanted to find out whether onlookers or the cops would intervene. What you see here in my film are the results.

Solutions to the bike theft problem are hard to find. More bike racks in better-lit areas, stronger locks and bike garages all help. But ultimately, greater public awareness may be the only way to substantially curb theft. If someone saw a car being stolen, they would surely call the police. Why should a bike be any different?

‘Bike Thief’ (via Kottke)


  1. i dont agree with it, but i’m pretty sure the answer to “Why should a bike be any different?” is because they cost a lot less than a car, on average.

    1. But many (most?) car owners have insurance to cover theft.  I doubt the same is true of bike owners.

  2. I’m not sure the reaction to car theft would be any more dramatic than it is to bike theft. When was the last time you called 911 when you heard a car alarm go off?

  3. My car was stolen from in front of the police station here.  They sent a bike cop to chase it.  Funnily enough, the car beat the bike cop to the Mexican border.

    Happily, it was snagged at the border on the way back into the US.  Sadly, it was returned to me with a trunkful of back copies of Booty Sistas.

    1. The second-to-last time my car was stolen I got it back with an almost-interesting new selection of hip-hop tapes in it – though my Pink Floyds had gone. :-(
      Still have no idea what happened to the music collection when it went the last time :-(

  4. The bystander effect is strong enough that a woman can be beaten to death while screaming for help in a crowded neighborhood without anyone bothering to pick up a phone…

      1. I believe Radio Lab ( or some other radio show) did a great episode on the Genovese murder. Basically, people did call police, the whole thing was hyped by the media and the NYPD fed into the hype to avoid being blamed.

  5. Walking through downtown LA a month or so ago, I saw a gentleman use a pole with a hook on the end to reach through a barely open car window, fish a jacket out, go through the pockets and remove a wallet, and then push the jacket back through the window before calmly waking on down the street.  In the financial district during lunchtime – the streets were solid with people.  80% of people didn’t even seem to notice; the other 20% were as bemused as I was.  I saw no-one reaching for their cellphone – I certainly didn’t. 

    The reason I tell this story is I think that for many people, the blatancy of Neistat’s ‘theft’ is part of why they didn’t attempt to do anything about it.  Either the sheer chutzpah of the act amused/impressed those who saw it to the point where they didn’t feel like preventing it (as the gentleman with the pole amused me), or the very fact the thief was willing to do something so blatant spoke to a desperation or lack of care about consequence which suggested that direct intervention might be met with violence (the ‘thief’ was carrying a *crowbar* for crying out loud) or similar craziness.

    The unanswered question is what would have happened if the cops in the cop station had noticed what he was doing?  Disproportionate violence; calm and professional inquiry; or bemused indifference?

    1.  There’s another reason nobody would call the police in your situation – who in their right mind would park in downtown LA and both leave jackets with valuables in the car, and leave the window slightly open? Especially in the financial district? The answer: someone who probably deserves to be robbed.

      (not really of course, but you do have to wonder about such people)

      1. Not a good argument, even if half in jest. People frequently argue the same thing with respect to young women wearing revealing clothing deserving anything they get…

        1. It being a financial district, it may be more common for passers-by to identify with the thief.

          By the time he was done, one or more of the observers may have been inspired in the creation of a new “financial product”.

          (Also, meant to say good point on the blaming-the-victim thing.)

    2. My experience isn’t as brazen as yours, but I was driving through a Costco parking lot in Durham, NC and rode past three young males using a jimmy to break in to a car. The parking lot was full and no one was doing anything. I drove by a second time and asked them what was up. They said they locked their keys in their car and a friend was helping them. It was plausible because they had a cart of stuff from Costco, but I wasn’t 100% so I called the cops. The cops seemed genuinely surprised that someone would report such an event. Their reason turned out to be legit (or at least the cop didn’t arrest in the few minutes I waited around after his arrival). But damn, the bystander effect is strong.

  6. There’s an easy way to get people to pay attention when you’re blatantly stealing a bike: be black!

    1. But doesn’t the end of that video also prove something different?  That a real thief would lie to your face if he was stealing the bike.  He isn’t going to tell you it isn’t his, and when the black actor tells the gentleman that he lost the key all of a sudden he gives the would be thief the benefit of doubt and helps him free the bike.  Having the actors tell people who asked if it was their bike makes it a little unrealistic.  Now I won’t argue that because he is black there are going to be more people questioning him, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have a very similar success rate.

  7. Even as someone who’s had a bike stolen before, I don’t necessarily assume that someone trying to free one from a lock is necessarily trying to steal it; I’ve lost keys and forgotten combinations, and of course bikes do get abandoned. (Does anyone remember the recent video of the bike that’s left locked in front of a store for months? It lasted a surprisingly long time before even minor accessories were removed.) I tend to be a bit skeptical of Neistat since he did the iPod battery stencil thing and it was revealed that he’d tried to replace the battery himself (something I’ve done successfully with iPods, multiple times) and killed it.

    1. I don’t quite understand the logic. The fact that he was forced to try to replace the battery himself because of Apple’s pig-headed choice and as a result his phone broke somehow makes what he was saying about iPods less valid?

    1. It’s not a take off. The NYT piece is by Casey Neistat, one of the brothers who made that original film.

  8. “If someone saw a car being stolen, they would surely call the police.”

    I don’t even believe that.

    1. Especially if you happen to be living in a behavioral sink

      1. Dunno, Tokyo seems to have a relatively low crime rate even tho  people have to be basically stuffed inside subway cars during rush hour.

        Oh and why link to the Calhon article rather than the one about the expression itself (tho it seems to be in dire need of a cleanup)?

        1. “tho it seems to be in dire need of a cleanup”

          That was exactly why.  And Tokyo’s low crime rate may have more to do with an extremely authoritarian and brutal police force.  They are known for producing “confessions.”

          1. Being arrested isn’t fun in Japan but Japanese (in general) just don’t steal, even if there is zero chance of consequences. You could steal any bike you like without anyone noticing, supermarkets are totally open with no barriers, shopowners don’t treat you like potential thieves as they often do in Western countries.

            If anything, living in Japan feels more “free” than in the US because you don’t have authority and pseudo-authority figures watching you all the time. During all my time living in Tokyo, I’ve had zero interaction with police (save for the one time I asked for directions); in the US, every other Greyhound trip in the Southwest — entirely in the US — included an interrogation by Border Patrol (since I’m a foreigner). And, in case you haven’t noticed, American police aren’t exactly the most gentle or likable folks in the world, especially when they spot a foreigner.

  9. In college, there was a rash of bike thefts, and most of us took to locking them to two or three racks in well-trafficked, open places with a regular campus patrol coming around. Came to get my bike, and the entire rack had been levered out of the concrete and the whole thing stolen in broad daylight, with all the bikes still attached, including mine. I ran down a campus service road to see an unmarked box truck leaving, and ran to the campus police car to tell them. “File a report, kid, but don’t hold out hope.” There was no way a few hundred people hadn’t seen the theft, but oh well.

    1.  I guess the way to be a successful thief is to steal a lot of low-value items. You steal $100,000 once and you’re a dangerous criminal; you steal $100 a thousand times and nobody cares.

      1.  Or to steal millions while running a bank. Then you’re just a successful businessman. /cynical

  10. For me, a big part of whether I’d get involved has a lot to do with what degree I’m placing myself at personal risk. If the guy has a tool, that means he’s armed (a crowbar becomes a club, etc). I’m not risking myself over a bike.
    But besides that, if he’s making headway on the lock, in a city like New York, calling the cops is pointless: by the time you’ve talked to the police dispatcher and given them the location, the kid’s got the bike unlocked and is riding away. At that point, why are the police going to even bother responding?  The guy demonstrated he could defeat a lock within 2 minutes. Any cop will tell you that 2 minutes is a superb response time — usually they take 3-5 to get to a scene, and that’s only after the dispatcher has determined from the caller where to send the cop. Bikes are cheap, and they can’t vote. They’re so low on the totem pole as to have fallen off the bottom end.
    Note that the only encounter with the police occurred because a cruiser just happened to get lucky and spot a guy who was explicitly trying to be seen. Most thieves don’t behave so overtly, using large, noisy, conspicuous power tools to ply their trade.

  11. Once, I had noticed a bike locked up under a freeway overpass that had been sitting there for a few weeks, and it was starting to get parted out. I called a locksmith guy and told him I’d lost my keys on a recent trip. He felt bad for me and cut it off for $10, after giving me a pitying once-over. 
    Point is, nobody gives a goddamn about a bike. They might give a goddamn if you look black but that is another story entirely.

  12. This wouldn’t happen in the Netherlands. I’ve had friends who’ve had to smash (their own) locks, or wheel bikes home with the front wheel locked, and the amount of jeering and harassment they’ve gotten is astonishing. Maybe it takes a country where everyone rides a bike, combined with a culture where public social ‘policing’ is acceptable.  

  13. So in the USA cameras aimed at bike racks would be one solution?

    I dunno but I’ve been told: any bike over $800 you have to keep your eyes on at all times. Store indoors, never take your eyes off it during pastry breaks when you’re out riding. Two locks might slow a thief down because he might not be carrying both types of tools, but don’t count on it. The police interest piece of the puzzle was missing–thanks, Cory.

  14. If someone saw a car being stolen, they would surely call the police. Why should a bike be any different?

    My father used to be in the habit of losing his car keys while jogging; the couple of times he broke into his own (expensive) car using assorted scrap metal on public and well-frequented parking lots nobody cared. Same thing happened to my brother in the city (with hundreds of people nearby), used a clothes hanger to break into his (old, admittedly) car; nobody cared, called the police or did anything to that effect. All of this happened in a capital city in Western Europe.

    People just don’t care; it’s not about bikes specifically.

    1. Not care, or do not feel like getting involved in the hassle of the courts over property who’s owner they do not know.

  15. In college I lost my bike lock key. Unfortunately, the bike was locked up in front of a very busy building on campus. The lock was really beefy U Lock and would not yield to a hack saw (I now know these are easy to pick). So, my roommate and I bought a grinding/metal cutting blade for a circular saw and cut the thing off in the middle of the day right between classes. I can still remember the scene. Crowds of people walking by while sparks were flying. Nobody questioned us.  

    1. I once lost my key and tried to open the bike lock with a iron saw.
      Police stopped… and advised me to use a bolt cutter instead. :)

  16. Someone once stole my bike… the guy who saw that happen walked up to the thief and took my bike away from him. He left it at a bike store across the street (since my lock was cut).

    When I couldn’t find my bike after work I went to the bike store to ask if there had been a ‘ clean up’ (when the city cleans the street of bikes that aren’t parked in the right places… even though mine was, but just in case someone moved it to make room for his own bike) And… there it was!!
    I never got a chance to thank this man. So if you’re reading this…

    Faith in Humanity: RESTORED.

    (happened in Alkmaar, the Netherlands)

  17. I’m wondering what the best response would be as a passerby?  I think just a simple – “hey, that’s my bike!” would be best, assuming you are not completely alone with the thief.  Chances are they’d take off, and if they do try to argue the point,  you could say “just kidding” and move on if you really don’t want to put yourself at risk.

  18. I was once sitting near a bike rack, eating my drunk nachos fairly late at night downtown in my local college town, and I saw some guy walk by and give the bike rack a good looking-over. Obviously to me, he was looking for a bike to steal – thefts are common in this town. But he walked off up the street and I didn’t feel the need to pursue him.

    But five minutes later, the man was back, and he was pulling on bike locks, trying to see if any were broken or not actually locked. He seemed to have found a likely suspect, at which point I couldn’t sit there and watch any more. Four simple words came out of me:

    “That’s not your bike!”

    This touched off the angriest, most aggressive encounter I’ve ever had with another human being in my life. He started screaming at me about what a little b*tch I was, how I needed to mind my own business and leave him alone. I kept calmly eating my nachos and insisting it wasn’t his bike – being drunk helped. When he showed no signs of leaving (in fact, he seemed to be trying to get ME to leave), I told him I would call the police if he persisted. Not my best move. He became extremely aggressive and threatening – when I eventually got up and left, he followed me home, screaming and ranting the entire way. I think the only thing that stopped him from actually going for me was the fact that I had my phone out and was on the phone to campus security the second I noticed him coming after me.

    I don’t know what I would have done had I not been nearly as drunk. But it felt like the right thing to do at the time.

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