Hannah Rosenberg/Sun Photography Editor

Bike racks on Central Campus. The Cornell University Police Department has reported 23 cases of bike theft since early February.

April 11, 2021

As Bike Theft Climbs Nationally, Cornell Students Lose Their Rides on Campus

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Bike thefts have been on the rise nationally throughout the pandemic, and Cornell’s Ithaca campus is feeling it — since early February, the Cornell University Police Department has reported 23 cases of bike theft. 

As some students on campus have reported losing their bikes over the past few months, persistent national bike shortages that hit Ithaca may partially be fueling this trend, according to Gabriel Ewig ’23, who works Old Goat Gear Exchange by the Commons. The number of cyclists also climbed during the pandemic, as people looked to exercise outdoors and avoid transportation, putting more bikes on the streets that could be stolen. 

Thomas Steffie, the owner of Gorges Cycles in Ithaca, said that in his 46 years as a bicyclist, one friend of his had their bike stolen. But recently, Steffie said he has seen “significantly higher” reports of bike theft — in the past few weeks, three people have called in saying their bikes were stolen. 

“Bikes are in high demand, so I wouldn’t be surprised if that encouraged people to steal more,” Ewig said. “We had a lot of theft over the summer, and it has died down over the winter. Right now it seems to be back up again.”

But even as supply increased and stores reopened, thefts haven’t decreased, according to CUPD Chief David Honan. Some of the thieves, according to Honan, took advantage of unlocked bicycles, using them for quick transportation. The Ithaca Police Department hasn’t seen the same uptick, according to Lieutenant Ted Schwartz, who oversees the investigations division.

Cornell students are among those who have lost their bikes over the last few months.  

Zahavah Rojer ’23 said her bike was stolen from her apartment near Collegetown around March 25. She owned her bike for two weeks before her wire lock was cut and her bike was stolen from the bike rack. 

Rojer filed a report with the Ithaca Police Department — but she hasn’t seen her bike since.

“When I found out it was gone, I was really upset,” Rojer said. “The idea that this could potentially be a fellow student taking my bike made me really frustrated. Whenever I’m on campus, every time I see a bicycle, I’m like, ‘Oh, is that my bike?’”

Bike store owners and CUPD have suggested students invest in a U-lock, which is stronger than a cable lock and is one of the best ways to safeguard a bike. 

Mason Wilson, a bike mechanic at Black Cat Cyclery, said inexpensive cable locks are easier to cut than a U-lock, which may take someone longer to cut through.  

“Reach out to your local bicycle shop to have them demonstrate how to properly lock your bike,” Wilson wrote in an email to The Sun. “Discuss other anti theft options, as locking skewers or even tracking devices.”  

Wilson further advised cyclists to photograph and register their bikes, take a picture of the bike’s serial number and consider insurance to protect their bikes.

But for some students, using a U-lock was not enough to secure their bikes.

Felipe Santamaria ’23, who lives in Baker Tower on West Campus, said he found his bike and his U-lock missing from the bike rack outside his dorm on March 8. As a member of the Cornell Triathlon Team, his bike, named Juliana, has been a big part of his Cornell experience.

“I’m always seeing my bike. It was definitely super hard when I first noticed it wasn’t there. I was freaking out,” Santamaria said. “I definitely got very emotional that day.”

While Santamaria reported his incident to the Cornell Police Department, his triathlon coach recovered the bike by visiting a wooded area behind the Ithaca Walmart where some unhoused individuals live. His coach regularly visited the area after the bike was stolen and eventually returned it to Santamaria with the assistance of the IPD.

“I’ve just been super super grateful ever since,” Santamaria said. “The day I got it back and my coach was calling me, I was screaming through West Campus, telling all my friends.”

According to Nicholas Desystemizer, the director of Recycle Ithaca’s Bicycles, bike theft is not a new trend in Ithaca — even as the area has seen a recent uptick.  

In recent years, Desystemizer said, reports of bike theft have increased because of an influx of unhoused individuals in the Ithaca area rely on bike theft as a “primary source of subsistence.” However, Desystemizer said this group does not represent most of Ithaca’s unhoused population.

“As the Director of RIBs for four years, a participant in the RIBs community for almost twenty years until the present time, and for almost half of my life a homeless person … I’ve known and encountered thieves and the circumstances that they live in,” Desystemizer wrote in an email to The Sun. “It’s very important to make clear … that not every camp resident is a thief of bicycles or any other thing.”

CUPD did not share any information that suggests the recent increase in bike thefts is connected with the unhoused population.

As reports of bike theft continue to trickle in, Ewig said that bike theft is a barrier to making cycling accessible. According to Ewig, bikes are an important way to increase mobility and provide transportation in communities.

“There are plenty of other deterrents from getting people on bikes … having the risk of having your bike stolen is another one adding on the list,” Ewig said. “If we are going to create a community that is focused on making biking accessible to many people, we have to limit those barriers to entry as much as possible.”