This is the first post in our two-part series about bike theft in Champaign-Urbana.  You can access our second post, focusing not just on the UIUC campus, but all of Champaign-Urbana, here.

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For many people, bikes are synonymous with theft, or at least with things-that-tend-to-get-stolen-frequently.  So central are worries about bike theft that when coming in to Neutral Cycle’s Campustown location, one of the first concerns that people voice is whether or not their new bike will get stolen and what they should do to minimize the possibility of this happening. 

Our immediate answer is “get a good lock” – getting a U-lock and securing it to your bike’s frame will ensure that the chances that your bike gets stolen are fairly low.  I attended UIUC and have been living in Urbana since 2006 and biking since 2009; not only have I never had my bike stolen, I’ve only had maybe two friends who have had theirs stolen.  So while a lot of theft occurs, if you’re careful, the risk is not that high.  We’ll discuss bike locks in greater detail in another blog post this weekend.


With just ten seconds and a pair of garden sheers, this bike could be gone.

Bike theft in Champaign-Urbana is something that is widely discussed, but about which exists little information beyond anecdotal tales of individual loss.  This is not enough for us at Neutral Cycle.  We want numbers.  We want stats.  We want some hard facts about bike theft that we can use ourselves and that we can share with others to help them to keep from being one of those aforementioned (and hitherto hypothetical) statistics.

Beginning a few weeks ago, I filed a few FOIAs – Freedom of Information Act – (my first one!!!) to get lists of all reported cases of bike theft in Champaign-Urbana in the past two years.  Due to the rather complex administrative boundaries in Champaign-Urbana, this was a little more complicated than it would be in most areas.  This is because Champaign-Urbana is patrolled but not one, not two, but three different police departments: the Urbana PD, the Champaign PD, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign PD.  The three lists can be accessed here, here, and here, respectively.  In these files, each reported case of theft is listed by its date, its location, and the value of the reported stolen item.  These were then plotted on a Google Map that can be accessed here.

Because that map is messy and not necessarily too helpful towards our goal of understanding where, why, and what types of bikes are getting stolen, we’ve synthesized these data in the infographic below.  These statistics come from the 161 cases of bike theft from the past two school years, August 2012 – August 2014, reported to the UIUC Campus Police department.  (Keep checking our blog because we should have an updated version including all of CU completed by Wednesday next week.)


Click for full size.

When looking at these stats it’s important that we remember that reported cases of bicycle theft are merely that; they are reported.  Capt. Roy Acree of the Urbana Police Department estimated that somewhere between 40-50% of bikes stolen on campus are reported to his department.  Because of the relatively low percentage of stolen bikes that are recovered (less than 1 in 5), we can safely assume that many people who are victims of bike theft do not report it to the police, particularly if their bikes were inexpensive.  That said, we can make a number of useful generalizations based on what the data tell us.

1)   Bike theft occurs more frequently in areas with lots of bike parking.

  • This may seem relatively obvious and partially due to the presence of more steal-able items (i.e. bikes) concentrated in a small area, but it is likely that many bike thieves, when looking for bikes, focus on these areas because they know that they will stand a higher chance of finding a bike that is worth a lot and/or easy to extricate from its lock.
  • Suggestion: It might make sense to secure your bike somewhere else that is less immediately visible or apparent to bike thieves.

2)   Bikes are most frequently stolen in August and September

  • These are months of the year when (a) many people are on campus because school has begun and (b) many people bike due to good weather, leading to a massive influx in bikes relative to June and July.  This means that thieves may be more likely to strike because (a) they want their own bike to use and enjoy the weather in and (b) they have a lot more potential targets of theft.
  • Suggestion: Be especially careful of where you lock up your bikes during these months.  Keep your bike inside if you can and, if you can’t, use a U-lock attached to part of your bike frame (more on this next week).

3)   Most bikes stolen are relatively inexpensive

  • A lot of people suffer with a bad bike because they assume that it will leave them resistant to bike theft, but the data show that this is certainly not the case.  When discussing numbers, we should keep in mind that people can be pretty liberal when estimating the value of their items in police reports, so we should take them with a grain of salt and assume that their real value is likely significantly less.
  • Reported value ranged from $1 (yeah, really) to $3,000, with an average of $274.  58% of bikes – over half – were reported to be worth $200 or less and nearly 32% were valued at $100 or less.  It is certainly true that having a more expensive bike will make it more of a target, but hard-to-unlock, expensive bikes may take too much time and be too risky, leading thieves instead to instead opt for a poorly-secured cheap bike.
  • Suggestion: Don’t rely on having a bike that looks bad as a theft deterrent; rely on having a good lock.  Don’t be afraid of having a nice or new bike; worry about having it securely locked.

This lonely lock at ISR is the remnant of a once locked and “secured” bike.

To understand better how to prevent bike theft, I spoke with Capt. Roy Acree of the Campus Police department.  Having been working for the department since 1988, he’s been dealing with this issue for over 25 years.  Over the course of our discussion, he offered three suggestions to students to make sure their bikes are not stolen:

  1. Lock your bikes.
    Many people leave their bikes out with no lock at all and these are often picked up by people looking merely for a quicker way home.
  2. Lock your bikes using good locks.
    Capt. Acree noted that investing in a good lock when you start will save you money in the long run because it will minimize the chances that your bike will get stolen.  While any lock can be broken, the majority of thefts, according to Capt. Acree, involve bikes that were (a) not locked or (b) locked up using a cheap cable lock that is easy to cut through.  U-locks at Neutral Cycle start at $26.
  3. Don’t leave your bikes out for extended periods of time.
    If you’re going to be gone over summer or winter break, make sure you either bring your bike home with you or store it somewhere secure.  An affordable option is Snohassle, a local bicycle storage company that provides a place to keep your bike whenever you need it.

Neutral Cycle blog posts are not only meant to inform, but also to engage the community and spark a conversation among cyclists and their neighbors.  I’ve done a lot of writing and now it’s your turn. What do you do to make sure that your bike doesn’t get stolen?  Do you consider location?  If so, does it impact how or whether you will park your bike in an area?  Are there any other important variables that I failed to mention entirely?  Let us know!

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