As violent crime remains at historical lows in much of the West, criticism of Broken Windows policing has grown more insistent. Skeptics, including New York mayor Bill de Blasio’s new top deputy, J. Phillip Thompson, claim either that preventing small, nonviolent crimes wasn’t a big factor in preventing larger violent ones, or that Broken Windows’ disproportionate targeting of minorities isn’t worth the benefits, even if they exist. This debate ignores a key point: preventing “minor” crime is a social good in itself. Cities plagued with small-scale crime cannot maintain a good quality of life for their residents. Advocates of bike-share programs are discovering this anew, as the private-sector companies that offer the services, from Paris to Baltimore, have pulled out or scaled back because they cannot keep up with the destruction of their bicycles.
Bike-sharing isn’t a new phenomenon. Paris has had its Velib program for more than a decade, and New York has offered Citi Bike for five years. For an annual, monthly, or daily fee, bike-share participants can rent a public bike from a dock, use it within town for a set period of time—generally a half-hour to an hour—and then return it to a different kiosk (or the same one). Bike-share is meant to help commuters, shoppers, and tourists complete short trips in urban areas without having to worry about storing and maintaining their own bikes. Such programs are popular: New York’s program logged 62,605 rides daily last September, and annual membership stands at 137,003. Now, several entrepreneurial firms around the world are supplementing this traditional dock-based bike-share with a “dockless” variety, in which patrons can take a bike from any legal parking spot and ride it to another such spot, without having to find a dock (much like people drive their cars, without having to secure them to a physical stand).
But in some cities, bike-share operators have run into considerable vandalism and theft. In February, Gobee bike, a Hong Kong–based dockless service, pulled its bright green bikes off Paris’s streets after less than a year. It had to do the same in Lille, another French city, and in Brussels. Indeed, on a summer visit to Paris in 2017, damage to the bikes was apparent: a walk along the Seine revealed several bikes lying broken on the quai on the water’s edge. In just months, Gobee said, 1,000 of its bikes had been stolen and 3,400 damaged. Such vandalism is nothing new in Paris. The city-supported docked program devotes 10 percent of its $18 million annual city subsidy to preventing theft and vandalism; 9,000 bikes were stolen last year, out of a total of 20,600.
Vandalism is often thought to constitute behavior such as painting your “tag” to make a mark—a nuisance but relatively easy to fix, while theft, it seems natural to believe, has an economic motive, with the thief wanting an item for himself, or to sell. Yet these terms don’t apply to what Gobee pointedly termed “the mass destruction of our fleet,” or to the older bike-share’s woes. This is wholesale property destruction, with bicycles and their docks so heavily damaged that they must be totaled. Bike theft, too, isn’t generally for personal profit, it appears, but for malice: stolen bikes are found in the Seine, or found in such unusable condition that they must be replaced.
Bike-share destruction isn’t limited to Europe. Last year, as the Washington Post notes, Baltimore had to shut down its own system temporarily because “Charm City has lost so many of the program’s bikes to theft and vandalism.” One bike-share advocate told the paper that “the crime issue in Baltimore is real” and that “Bike Share is a victim of that.” As in Europe, the bike crime in Baltimore isn’t generally financially motivated. Vandals rip bikes out of their docks, only to abandon them locally. Though the bike-share operators find many of the bikes, they’ve been damaged past the point of use, just as in Paris. In Portland, Oregon, the “Rose City Saboteurs” slash tires and spray-paint bikes; San Francisco’s GoBikes have turned up in trees and in the bay, CityLab found.
Not all cities have bike-share vandalism problems. New York’s Citi Bike has seen remarkably little vandalism, reporting just 36 instances involving its 8,503-bike fleet last summer. New York will undergo a much bigger test starting this summer, as the city is approving four dockless-bike companies to provide bicycles in areas remote from Manhattan, including Coney Island and the Rockaways. The city will soon find out if bikes outside of its densest areas are more susceptible to damage or destruction. London, too, has escaped large-scale bike-share destruction. Bewegen, the company that runs Baltimore’s program, says that it hasn’t experienced such trouble in any other cities in which it operates, ranging from Birmingham, Alabama, to two cities in Portugal.
Where bike-share vandalism and theft are widespread, what’s the motive? In San Francisco and Portland, the suspected reason is to protest gentrification. In Baltimore, police told the Post that the vandals are teenagers, with property destruction more common during the summer, when school is out. In Paris, Gobee blamed “the new entertainment of under-aged individuals.” Baltimore and Paris are, of course, very different in terms of crime, among other things: Baltimore, a city of 622,000, had 343 homicides last year, while the Paris metropolitan area, with 11.2 million residents, had just 190 murders between 2015 and 2017.
Yet these cities also have something in common that’s harder to quantify: serious cultural fissures and class-based, sometimes race-based, anger. In Baltimore and Paris, a large enough subset of poor minorities and young people is filled with rage and nihilism, and takes those emotions out on physical symbols of prosperity, health, and mobility. The anonymous anarchists in Portland said that they destroyed bikes to make the point that “our city is NOT a corporate amusement park.”
In Paris, Velib has responded to vandalism by removing bikes from poorer minority neighborhoods, taking away from their residents an option that’s cheaper (and healthier) than riding the subway or driving. As Velib switches to a new operator this year, it’s cutting the number of available bikes by 47 percent, partly to reduce the vandalism problem. With Gobee’s pullout, people all over Paris will have fewer transportation options.
Around the world, in different cities, such government inability to protect commerce and transportation from destruction is a Broken Windows failure. Preventing bicycle destruction in these instances may or may not have reduced violent crime, but, as New York has long demonstrated, catch enough minor criminals, and you’ll catch people carrying guns or knives, some wanted for more serious crimes.
But the attacks on bike-share are disturbing enough. “It was sad and disappointing to realize that a few individuals could ruin such a beautiful and promising project,” Gobee observed, in making its Paris withdrawal. Gobee’s 150,000 Parisian users have fallen victim to a much smaller number of abusers. And that’s the outcome of low-level, supposedly “minor” crime everywhere.
Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images