The economics of stealing bikes

bike lokby quan ha

What Happens to Stolen Bicycles?
[Via Priceonomics]

At Priceonomics, we are fascinated by stolen bicycles. Put simply, why the heck do so many bicycles get stolen? It seems like a crime with very limited financial upside for the thief, and yet bicycle theft is rampant in cities like San Francisco (where we are based). What is the economic incentive for bike thieves that underpins the pervasiveness of bike theft? Is this actually an efficient way for criminals to make money?


Very interesting. Te main take home – there really are no penalties for stealing a bike. hat is if one gets caught, which they won’t

There is a good chance that if you buy an expensive bike from Craig’s list, that it has been stolen. The cops know where bikes are traded for money on the streets but, because any penalty will not merit the opportunity costs of having cops do anything, these street fairs go on.

Bikes in public are like found money.

2 thoughts on “The economics of stealing bikes

  1. Hmmm interesting questions.

    I agree with the cost benefit analysis of stealing bikes: low reward, but even lower cost.

    However, I disagree on the Craigslist analysis. Most stolen bikes are not “expensive” they are the cheap bikes that are locked up outside of universities and on streets. These are the easiest to steal, and these have the low likelihood of being caught and less of being prosecuted. Expensive bikes are kept in offices, garages and homes. These have a low likelihood of being stolen, and home invasion has a much higher cost to the thief; they are more likely to be caught and more likely to be prosecuted.

    I think the key here is to understanding what the user thinks is “expensive”.

    Road bikes can cost you upwards of $6K if you want to spend it. I don’t see Calfee, Serotta, Moots, or Independent Fabrications bikes locked outside. I do see $1,200 Treks all the way down to $50 Roadmaster bikes locked outside. A quick analysis of the prices of bikes on Craigslist will show that the vast majority of the bikes are of the cheaper sort. Also, when you spend $5K on a bike you write down the serial number.

    My point is that cheap bikes are a commodity: interchangeable and easy to move. Expensive bikes are unique, traceable and have higher costs when stolen.

    Now, if you are talking selling components the analysis is different. However, there is much less money in components, because it takes very avid cyclist to want to assemble components into a bike. Components are less/not traceable, but the market is thin.

    The moral: if you buy an expensive bike, write down the serial number, heck take a video of it with your phone. And ride it as much as you want but don’t lock a $6K bike with a $20 lock outside. Keep it in your garage or office.

    Best- Tyler

    1. Great points. I would expect that most of the beaters that are stolen are simply traded for drugs and such. Anyone with an expensive bike needs to really protect it

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