This article comes to us courtesy of California Watch.
Jay Fraser knows what it's like to lock a bicycle at a Bay Area Rapid Transit station and return to an empty rack.
Fraser is a research analyst for the Administrative Office of the Courts in San Francisco and has commuted by bike for 20 years, 10 of them in the Bay Area. He had a bike stolen at the Pleasant Hill/Contra Costa Centre BART station and a seat stolen at the Walnut Creek station.
Like Fraser, hundreds of other commuters have parked a bike at a BART stop and returned to find it gone or stripped of parts.
The Walnut Creek and neighboring Pleasant Hill BART stations are the top targets for bike thefts, a California Watch analysis of BART crime data shows. From 2006 through October 2011, the two stations accounted for more than 430 thefts of bicycles or bicycle parts, nearly 17 percent of the thefts in the entire system. Stations in higher-crime areas in Oakland and Richmond had lower theft numbers.
At the West Oakland and Richmond stations, reported thefts were dramatically lower, with 64 reports at the West Oakland station and 51 at the Richmond stop. While the Ashby and MacArthur stations in Berkeley and Oakland, respectively, were among those hardest hit by thefts, there were 141 more reported thefts at the two Walnut Creek stations.
"It surprises me that Walnut Creek is that high. It's generally a low-crime area and kind of a low-crime demographic," Fraser said.
Systemwide, the data show a 20 percent increase in the total number of reports during the nearly six-year period, with eight stations - Walnut Creek, Pleasant Hill/Contra Costa Centre, Dublin/Pleasanton, Ashby, Fremont, North Berkeley, MacArthur and Concord - accounting for half of the thefts.
In a recent meeting of the BART Bicycle Advisory Task Force, BART Deputy Police Chief Ben Fairow identified bike theft as a problem and said bike theft stings, as well as the placement of bike racks in more visible locations, are part of future plans to help decrease theft at stations, according to meeting minutes.
BART Police Community Service Officer Lauren LaPlante says BART police often find commuters aren't properly locking their bikes, making it easier for thieves to make off with the bike or any unsecured parts. In order to combat the problem, "we are currently focusing on a public awareness campaign that may include signs, multimedia demonstrations and traditional 'door to door' or 'bike to bike' style interactions with commuters," LaPlante wrote in an e-mail. "Our main message is about locking bikes securely and self-registration."
LaPlante explained that self-registration means owners should keep a record of the make, model, year, style, color, value and serial number of their bikes and give this information to police to ensure that bikes can be identified if recovered.
At the Downtown Berkeley BART bike station, head mechanic Adam Hunt recommended, at a minimum, using a U-lock and cable combination. "A couple of blows with a hammer will pretty much take care of a padlock," he said. Hunt also says lights, wheels, seats, mileage meters and any other loose parts on a bike are easy pickings for thieves if they are not properly secured. Hunt suspects that thieves strip unsecured parts from bikes more often than they make off with the bike, he said.
Since losing a bike and a seat, Fraser uses a U-lock and cable combination to secure his bike when he leaves it at the station, and he commutes on a bike he values at $300 instead of his $1,000 road bike.
"Honestly, I'm just kind of zen about it," Fraser said. "You don't lock your best bike up, which is annoying to people with only one bike and who want a nice bike to commute on."
At certain stations, bike commuters can take advantage of bike lockers and bike stations. The Downtown Berkeley bike station offers free valet bike parking during the day and also houses a 24-hour self-storage facility that charges 3 cents per hour from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays and 1 cent per hour at all other times, according to the website. Since opening about two years ago, Hunt estimates that 25,000 bikes have cycled through the facility.
"On the enforcement side," LaPlante wrote, "our patrol units are well aware that BART stations are a potential location for bike theft and they remain vigilant as often as they can. Patrol units are regularly updated on the crimes that are occurring around the system so they can know where to focus their attention."
While acknowledging that underreporting might skew figures, LaPlante emphasized that "our statistics are the primary indication of problem locations around our system" and that "reporting stolen bikes is very important to our response and we encourage it."
Agustin Armendariz and Mihir Zaveri are investigative reporters for California Watch, a project of the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting. Find more California Watch stories here.