(Bloomberg) — For motorcycle enthusiasts nationwide, the coronavirus pandemic has been both a boon and a hardship.
In the United States, motorcycle sales were up 33% for the first quarter over the same period last year. More riders are taking advantage of surplus time and energy to purse a socially distanced outdoor hobby and a cheaper, quicker way to get around town than driving a car. New motorcycle clubs are opening. Electric motorcycles are surging in proficiency and variety. But since Covid-19 arrived, motorcycle thefts have risen, too.
In New York City, motorcycle theft have risen a whopping 63% in the first half of the year over the same period last year, according to the state Department of Motor Vehicles. There were 985 motorcycle thefts last year, compared to 604 in 2019, according to the New York Police Department, which recently issued neighborhood warnings about it.
Motorcycle theft is so bad in the city that some riders have recovered bikes that were stolen have had them stolen again.
“It’s just chaos. I could give you a list of people who have had their bike stolen three times,” says Shmuel Avital, the founder of Spiegel Café, a longtime motorcycle hangout, and of Ride More Talk Less motorcycle gatherings. In the past year, Avital has himself recovered more than six stolen motorcycles for friends, as well as twice recovering his own stolen motorcycle. “Everybody likes to say the city is back, but this is not how the city was. This is not how the city should be. This situation is not the norm.”
In Seattle, after years of decline, motorcycle theft jumped 6% in 2020. In March, thieves in Kokomo, Ind., stole $95,000 worth of motorbikes from a Harley-Davidson dealership; company dealerships in Tennessee, Alabama, Illinois, and Kentucky were also burgled this year. In Cleveland, a shop called Joy Machines lost two bikes in a smash and grab—its first burglary after 10 years of crime-free service.
In some parts of London, motorcycle theft has long been expected. More than 9,000 motorcycles or scooters are stolen each year in the city, according to the Metropolitan Police. Motorcycle owners may annually face an almost 13% chance that their bike will be stolen, according to the national Department for Transport.
“In London, we have been hit massively with motorbike theft; it has been a major problem,” says Vikki van Someren, the co-founder with her husband, Dutch, of Bike Shed Motorcycle Club, which is based in London and Los Angeles. “We are always paranoid about our bikes—the amount of times Dutch and I will go have coffee somewhere and just spend the whole time watching ...”
This particular wave is unlikely to end soon, according to the National Crime Insurance Bureau in the U.S. Watch out next month: “Motorcycle thefts mostly occur in the warmer months,” said NICB spokesman Corey Witte in an email. “August [typically] has the most motorcycle thefts, while February has least thefts.”
The problem is far bigger than random jackings.
“In London, it has raised the price of insurance—and some people can’t even get motorbike insurance,” says van Someren. “If you live in some post codes in London, you can’t get insurance because it’s deemed such a high crime area.”
“In New York, in certain spots, you’re bound to see stolen motorcycles all day long, being ridden on the sidewalk, on one wheel, no helmets. It’s just the Wild West, total lawlessness,” Avital says. “If we live in a reality where you cannot have a motorcycle parked outside your house, then we have a problem.”
How to Stop Theft (or at Least Make it Harder for the Bad Guys)
There are ways citizens can help prevent a motorcycle from being stolen. Lesson one is simple: Just make theft less easy. In a climate rife with crime sprees enabled by joyriding, a little foresight and effort can go a long way.
“Anything you can do to discourage your bike from becoming a target helps, because the reality of it is that motorcycle theft is often just about convenience,” says Joonil Park, the brand manager at Rev’It Sport USA and a longtime motorcycle rider and instructor. “Whatever you do, it’s really about having the target be on the next easier bike to steal—not yours.”
Step One: Lock the steering wheel in place, Park says. It’s basic but essential.
“I have had a bike stolen in a 45-minute window,” Park says. “That scenario was a crime of convenience: Someone drove past and saw it parked outside and checked the steering lock and just pushed it away real fast.”
The other critical tactic for preventing motorcycle theft: Park it inside. Do this whether it’s in your own garage, in a shared garage where you split the cost of storing it with friends, or in a secured space shared by a community. (“I think that’s the great thing about what we offer at the Bike Shed: You can ride in and park inside,” says van Someren.)
In Brooklyn, Roll Up Brooklyn “provides a safe and secure place to park your motorcycle with 24/7 access” in Bushwick, according to its website. Motorgrrl Garage, a full-service community motorcycle garage in Greenpoint, offers monthly rates starting at $135, and Ryders Alley has locations in Williamsburg, as well as Manhattan’s Midtown and Financial District, with storage starting at $100 a month.
If you must park the bike on the street, be sure to park it at an angle that makes it difficult for thieves to scoop it into a truck or flatbed, says Park. Even if you have to park on a sidewalk—or behind a planter, parked cars, or bicycle stands—you might prefer chancing a parking ticket than losing your motorbike. If you can, park near or underneath a security camera.
“Crime right now is so brazen that two guys with bolt cutters can just throw your motorcycle in a van, or even just walk it away,” Park says. “So if you can park it off curbside and put it on the sidewalk right up alongside an apartment building where there is a camera right above it—even if the camera is not really capturing anything—it can help.”
“Out of sight, out of mind” applies to motorcycles covers, too. While they aren’t as secure as a private, locked garage, they can at least help keep your bike’s presence low-key. “If there’s a bike with a cover and a bike without a cover, they’re probably going to take the bike that is uncovered,” van Someren says.
Installing identification tags and trackers are no-brainers, says van Someren. She also suggests locking your motorcycle to your other motorcycle (or your buddy’s motorcycle), since it’s a lot harder to haul off two motorbikes than one. She says to lock your bike multiple chains and alarms to deter thieves. Xena sells high-tech disc-lock alarms; these can be synced with an iPhone app that tracks location, among other things, for $80 to $120. Don’t scrimp on quality; even though the best cost more, they resist bolt cutters better].
“So many people buy a really good chain and a crappy lock—or a really great lock and a crappy chain,” van Someren says, adding that it’s important to loop the chain lock through something more permanent than the front wheel. “It sounds silly, but if somebody wants your bike and you just loop the chain through your front wheel, they can take the front wheel off. Make sure you lock it through a solid portion of the bike.”
By the same token, don’t wash or repair your motorcycle in your front driveway, street, lawn, or other public place. She says it’s like advertising to anyone in the mood for a joyride: “Here, take this one!”
It also helps to personalize the motorcycle. Such unique characteristics as paint jobs, special handlebars and mirrors, and customized seats, headlights, and storage components can all help deter thieves who want to resell a generic bike fast. It could at least help your bike get recovered. “If you’ve got an unusual-looking bike that is recognizable, we have seen a few of those that have been recovered,” van Someren says.
Having an after-market shop hide the ignition and install a hidden kill switch that deadens the engine can also help thwart thieves who hope to ride away on a bike.
Paint different sections and components on your bike with a special liquid called Smartwater, which contains a unique forensic code that can help police identify your property, even if it’s chopped up or repainted. Each container of Smartwater has an exclusive profile (invisible except when exposed to black light) that is affixed to the bike once applied.
Take photos to document your bike. They can help verity its identity and ownership, but be wary of posting them on social media, where would-be thieves can easily track its location and storage circumstances. Some criminals have been so bold as to try to sell a stolen motorbike on Facebook the day after they stole it, says Avital, noting that the pandemic has created a perfect storm of conditions that enable people to feel so comfortable and confident about breaking the law.
“If you are [a bad guy] cooking something bad, and you’re waiting for conditions to be totally terrible, now is terrible,” he says. “It’s something the authorities should be worried about.”