Bike Theft in St. Paul

Why should you care about bike theft? The most straightforward reason is: because it could happen to you (if it hasn’t already). The less obvious answer: because 7 percent of bike theft victims quit riding entirely and 25 percent of victims ride less than before (Source: Project 529). Those numbers are significant; cost out an infrastructure solution that would increase your bike mode share by 7% and get a quarter of cyclist to ride more frequently. It would take many years and many millions in funding. Ending bike theft is one of the most cost effective ways to improve cycling. Now do we have your attention?

Before we opened a bike shop bike theft wasn’t something we gave much thought to. But nearly every day since we opened we heard stories of bike theft, and many days we heard more than one story. Now we care. The victims of bike theft run the demographic spread; in one week we took in bikes from a suit and tie guy, a lifeguard and a senior citizen on a fixed income. The losses were: a wheelset, a bent derailleur hanger, and a rear wheel and saddle (respectively). A new rear wheel is: $45 for the wheel, $15 for the tire, $8 for the inner tube, $15 for the freewheel (aka cogs), and $20 for labor. That’s north of a hundred bucks when tax is included. You may now be piecing together why someone would stop riding after a theft.

Theft Prevention

  1. Buy a good lock. U-locks and folding locks are the best; cable locks are the worst. We’re no longer stocking cable locks because when you buy one from us you’re (basically) paying to have someone (eventually) steal your bike. The better locks have theft coverage from $500 to $4000.
  2. Never park outside overnight. Give a thief enough time and he will break any lock. Take a look at the map below to see where you should never leave your bike overnight.
  3. Never leave your bike unlocked. We’ve heard many sad tales that start with ‘I just parked it in front of the store for a couple minutes while I ran in.’
  4. Be aware of your environment. Certain locations draw both bikers and thieves. (Why do you rob banks? Because that’s where the money is.) When you find a place to lock up, look around and see if there are people just sorta hanging out. If you get bad vibes then find somewhere else to lock up or bring your bike inside with you.
  5. Lock to something secure. Wiggle the rack, post or pole. If it moves or lifts out of the sidewalk then don’t use it. (Earn a merit badge by reporting it to 311.) The lock should go around the frame and a wheel (if possible). Keep the lock away from the ground because the thief can use the ground as leverage for a bolt cutter or jack.
  6. Register your bike and report theft. Do this now: take a photo of your bike, turn it over and record the serial number (found on the bb shell), put that information in a draft email and keep it… for that day… that most dreadful day. If you are a renter or homeowner with insurance, add the bike(s) to your policy. Register your bike. We like the National Bike Registry (Project 529). If your bike is stolen then please file a police report. Pretty please?
  7. Never purchase a stolen bike. Duh, right? Wrong. We get people coming through our door all the time asking if we buy parts. Nope. How much is this bike worth? We dunno; how much did you pay for it? Before you consider buying a used bike examine the bike and scrutinize the seller. Does the bike have obvious damage that might have been caused by a theft? Does the seller seem to know the bike? Does the bike have a backstory? Warning signs: not knowing the maintenance history, not knowing the mileage, not knowing the place of purchase, not knowing how to operate the shifters and brakes, and a bike that is the wrong size or wrong “application” for the seller. Finally, when in doubt, remember this: it is a crime to receive stolen property.
  8. Get better bike parking. Remember #3? There was nowhere to lock the bike. Here’s a fun thought experiment: Imagine that you are a driver and you don’t know if your destination will have any parking, and there’s a decent chance that your car will get stolen; do you roll the dice and drive, take the bus, or stay home? Parking policy is transportation policy.
  9. Help us make bike theft an issue.

Theft by the Numbers

St. Paul reports 916 bike thefts occurring during the period October 2014 through September 2019. So far the worst year has been 2016 with 189 thefts, however 2019 is on pace to surpass that with 184 thefts reported through September 30. Data point: the final quarter of the year — on average — accounts for 15% of the bike theft total. Conclusion: 2019 will be a record year.

[A]ccording to Project 529, of the hundreds of thousands of bikes recovered by police every year, less than 1% are registered and fewer than 5% are returned to their rightful owners.

And to further highlight the problem of bike thefts, it is estimated only 20% of stolen bikes are reported to police, more than 50% of stolen bikes used a cable lock instead of the more secure U-lock, and fewer than 20% of bike owners know the serial number on their bike.
(Source: Vancouver Urbanized)

Again, this is why we don’t sell cable locks and why when a bike comes in for a tune up we record its serial number and take its photo.

Bike theft appears to be a worse problem elsewhere. Last time we checked (late August), Minneapolis had logged more than 1,000 reported thefts. Now I know more people in Minneapolis ride, and it is a bigger city, but I have to wonder whether Minneapolis is also better at logging those thefts. Portland, Oregon’s law enforcement has assembled a task force to address their bike theft problem. Here’s what that looks like.

Theft by Location

We live in the age of BIG DATA, right? So it should be easy to figure out where bikes are being stolen. Wrong. The City of St. Paul doesn’t seem to geocode its crime data, and it semi-annonomizes street addresses by replacing the last digit of a street address with an X. For example, 137X UNIVERSITY AV W. Minneapolis, by contrast, does geocode its crime data, so making this map takes about 30 minutes once the dataset is located. Map of bike theft in Minneapolis

Compounding the challenge in St. Paul is that Ramsey County records address points as 1371 University Avenue West. So here’s what I did:

  • Using QGIS I changed the Ramsey County address points to read like St. Paul police address points. I changed the last digit of the street number to an X (1371 became 137X), I abbreviated the street type (Avenue became AV), I did the same with street direction (West became W), and I made the text string ALL CAPS.
  • Then I filtered the 220,000 line database of all reported crime in St. Paul (August 2014 to present day) looking for bike thefts. Throwing a bone here to St. Paul because it categorizes bike theft by monetary value (Under $500, $500-$1000, and over $1000).
  • Finally I joined databases to associate theft locations with actual addresses.
  • With that I was able to map just over 700 theft locations. The thefts which occurred near intersections were still problematic so I had to manually geocode 40 or 50 intersections. The final map captures about 95% of reported thefts. The thefts are transparent red dots (helps to show overlap) and the bike infrastructure appears as green line data. The light green buffer is what I used to count thefts one block on both sides of the University and Grand Avenue corridors.

Findings

  • If you turn off the street layer you can still figure out where the major streets are. Bike theft follows major streets.
  • Mapping theft by community council district shows that Union Park experienced a 3x increase in bike theft this year. There were 8 reported thefts in 2018 and 27 so far this year.
  • Looking at 1 block on both sides of the  University and Grand Avenue corridors captures more than 20% of all bike thefts in St. Paul. Downtown/Lowertown is also a hotspot at 13% of all thefts.

Limitations

  • The St. Paul database only includes reported thefts.
  • While each theft is coded by property value (good!) that value assessment must be made by the victim and officer.
  • The accuracy of these pins isn’t perfect: we can drop the pin on the same block as where the theft occurred but we still won’t know which side of the street and whether the theft was mid block or at either end. Without geotagged crime data this is the best we can do.

Next steps
Working on those. For now we will keep advising our patrons about how to beat the thieves.

The Story of One Bike

He came in on Wednesday. I gathered his front brake wasn’t working. He was telling me more than that but his English wasn’t good and he was gasping for air. He looked like he didn’t have much in this world to call his own, so I adjusted his brake for free. It was a mechanical disc brake so I did the usual check. Wheel centered in the frame/fork? Yes. Lever pulls cable? Yes. Brake caliper arm actuates? Yes. Rotor is true? Yes. Wheel turns without rotor noise? Yes. Conclusion: turn the inboard pad adjuster in until the brake starts working. Ten minutes later he was out the door with a much safer bike. He graciously thanked me.

He must have liked our service and our prices because I saw him again the next day. This time he was carrying his bike. From across the shop I could immediately spot the problem.

Bent derailleur hanger

“Why Limit Screws are Important!”

This photo was taken after I had extracted both pieces of the rear derailleur from the spokes. The derailleur hanger (silver piece) was so bent I had to unbolt it to remove the rear wheel. The chain didn’t go without a fight: the freewheel had to come off. Public service announcement to shade tree mechanics and bike shops: CHECK THE F’ING LOWER LIMIT SCREW OF THE REAR DERAILLEUR BECAUSE WHEN YOU DON’T THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS.

I told the man this was no bueno, that he’d have to leave the bike with me, and that it’d be 20 bucks to fix. (That last part was a formality to remind people that we’re not a non profit.) He left his name and phone number. I told him it would be ready in the morning.

I parked his bike until nearly the end of the day. At 6:45 pm I began to comprehend the damage. The derailleur was toast. The wheel (thankfully) was ok. The chain was a goner. The hanger was more bent than anything I’ve seen.

Mid 90s K2 MTB

The organ donor displaying its new period correct XTR rear derailleur.

I had a derailleur that came off a mid 90’s K2. I had the chain — if it came to that. But the hanger? Those things are like snowflakes — their variations are endless and they are not interchangeable. I knew I didn’t have the one his bike needed and he probably didn’t have the $ pay for it anyway.

The part itself is a fairly complex shape requiring alignment along 3 axis for the derailleur to work properly AND have the piece fit the frame. The Park Tool derailleur alignment gauge can be used for simple realignments but for this job it was useless. (Also: you’re not supposed to use that tool on aluminum… because it will either break or accelerate metal fatigue.) It was time to see what the bench vise could do.

Using three nickels, then two, and finally one as an improvised mandrel the hanger began resembling its original shape. (Side note: I’d never tried this before, and figuring out this stuff is one thing I really love about being a mechanic.) It took about ten minutes from start to finish. Most of that was head scratching time.

I remounted the hanger to the bike and before installing the replacement derailleur I attempted to chase the hanger’s threads. There was almost nothing left of them. I think the derailleur was already loosely mounted before the incident. When it kicked it took the first 3 or 4 threads with it.

I cringed the entire time I was remounting the derailleur just trying not to cross thread it (and thus negating all that clever work with the bench vise). Once the wheel was back in the frame I did a little more bending. Final touches: trimming the ends of the derailleur housing loop (they were badly corroded), installing a new chain, and making DAMN SURE the derailleur’s limit screws were properly set. Finish time: 7:15 pm.

Finished product

The result. I would’ve taken a better pic but the customer was in a hurry.

The guy didn’t even wait for my phone call. He showed up the next morning at ten past ten. His wheeze was worse than the day before. He explained that he had slept under the bridge. The coffee cup in his hand was bought for him by a kindhearted cop. He said the bike was his only transportation. I told him it was ready and that rather than 20 bucks the cost was 10 bucks — which would cover the chain but none of my labor. He didn’t have it. I told him he could pay me when he had the money. Once more he graciously thanked me. 

Maybe I’ll see him again. Maybe not. 

Rounding Up

Adjusting smooth post front brake

With each purchase our customers will now have the option to round up to the next dollar amount. Each contribution supports our community service.

The community we serve consists of the people who work, live, play and pass through downtown. Not everyone can pay and that is hard for us to hear, because we know that their bike is often their most important possession. A flat tire can mean missed appointments; lack of brakes can end in a crash, injury, and medical bills.

So we do the work they need. Sometimes it is a quick adjustment of their brakes or derailleurs and the only cost to us is our time. Other times it requires parts like brake pads, cables, housings, tubes, tires or a chain and there is a cost.

Our trust in people is often rewarded: they return, money in hand. When the wallet is light, their word is their currency. We may see them next week or the first of the month or never again… and it is for this last instance that we are establishing our round-up fund.

It is heartening that the people who come through our door to buy something, say ‘hello’ and ‘welcome to the neighborhood,’ or get work done for cash or ‘credit’ — they all have one thing in common: they want us to succeed. The round-up fund is a way to help your fellow bicyclists in need and to ensure The Smallest Cog can continue to serve our community.

 

Accountability

Confession: I was a tourist in the biking industry. Yes, I worked in a shop — the front and the back — but I wasn’t really in the business. I worked weekends and that landscape is vastly different than Monday – Friday. During the week is when warranty claims are filed, bills are paid, orders are received, the floor is stocked, and the professional mechanics do the deep work like tune ups, brake bleeds, and the improvisation required for working on odd French stuff and parts that are seized, rusted, or broken that need to be removed and replaced.

Now I do all of that. More than a few customers have been tickled by that fact. Why do they get a thrill out of learning they are speaking to the head mechanic, owner, and sole employee? I dunno but I can make some informed guesses:

1) Quality control. Shops that have n+1 employees will do inconsistent work because people are inconsistent. The person who takes your order for a wheel build may not be the person who does the build. The person who does the wheel build may or may not be the shop’s best builder.

A bike mechanic will never starve; they know this and it can lead to them setting their own rules. The work you get may depend heavily on how they spent the previous night. There’s also great variability in skill level because there’s little regulation over this vocation. There are schools, and there are manuals, but when it comes to getting a business license the only thing we had to prove was our business insurance met the minimums. The last thing that leads to inconsistent quality: shops are really stretched thin these days. I’ve heard of wait times in excess of 4 weeks. And try finding a bike shop without a ‘Help Wanted’ sign in the window. Corners are going to be cut.

We hear good and bad things about other shops. When the feedback is good, the person’s name is usually mentioned. When the feedback isn’t good, the story is usually about some guy in the service department who did less or more work than was expected, and didn’t bother explaining to the customer the reason(s) why.

This doesn’t happen at our shop. I am the only person working on your bike. When you leave your bike with me I will tell you what I plan to fix on your bike. When you pick up your bike I will tell you what I did to it and why. Your receipt will have a thorough explanation of the service performed. If the bike doesn’t perform to expectations I will work on it until it does. That is why we are able to guarantee our tune ups.

2) Accountability.

No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

When I imagine the life of an e-scooter I often resort to that Hobbesian quote (or as much of it as I can recall). It is a versatile quote and here I am using it to describe the reality of owning a self-financed start up business. Our family lives a thrilling existence in which one lawsuit, one large medical bill, too much bad weather, or an extended absence could end the dream. The possibility is ever present and it leads us to be very thorough in how we operate. This is why our service records are clear and wordy and the torque wrench gets a lot of use. I would wager our tune-ups, wheel builds and bike builds take about twice as long as other shops… because what I don’t want to see is you coming back through my door 5 minutes later or 24 hours later telling me that your bike wasn’t fixed right or something even worse than that.

3) Attitude. We love what we do. What do we do? We… behold an early 1990s Specialized Allez road bike because it was one of the first to use aluminum lugs and carbon tubes; donate our used cassettes, freewheels and chains to a neighborhood artist because… upcycle!; inflate your tires; valet park your bike while you are visiting Tin Whiskers or your parole officer… because bike theft is rampant; offer an opinion on how the city could make our streets and sidewalks more welcoming for pedestrians and cyclists; and show you how to adjust your mechanical disc brakes. And we also fix bikes! That pretty much covered yesterday. Today it will be something new.

See you soon!

 

Neighborhood Improvement

The Smallest Cog's Storefront

We kicked off bike to work week with a visit from our city council representative. Apart from the expected conversation about what the city is doing for/to bicyclists we chatted about our corner: Robert Street North and 9th Street East. Where are the street trees? Where are the trash cans and recycling receptacles? Where is the bike parking? Where is the pedestrian scale lighting? Where are the benches for the bus stop? Everywhere I look from my corner I see places for cars but very few places for people. Don’t we deserve nice things — just like the people who shop, dine and work on Grand Avenue?

One block up is a different story because in St. Paul the city relies on property redevelopment to make improvements to the sidewalks. Our neighbors across the street have sidewalk cafes, bike parking, and street trees. St. Paul is not atypical in this approach; most cities use the development approval process to leverage improvements that benefit the public. The problem with that approach is the properties that don’t turnover — like ours.

Depending on the private sector for improvements to public spaces is a form of divestment. And the results are predictable: storefronts will remain vacant and the unwelcoming sidewalk will attract undesirable uses.

We will keep sweeping and shoveling our sidewalk. We put out flowers and tables and chairs for when the weather is nice. Our awning is going to stay up because there’s no shelter at the bus stop. We will gladly surrender the parking space outside our door for use as a bike corral. But we’re not going to empty the trash can on the corner — that’s up to the City and it needs to do that more than once a week.

Wheel Building

Last week I got my first commission. It was for a rear wheel built upon an existing rim. About reusing wheel components: Hubs? Yes. Spokes and nipples? Never. Rims? Judgment call.

Photo of nipple washers.

Nipple washers are a must when working with lightweight rims (Stan’s) or when reusing a rim

There are many ways a wheel build can go wrong. You can get the lacing pattern wrong. You can get the spoke length wrong. You can have a 36 hole hub and a 32 hole rim. Your equipment can be poorly calibrated — truing stands need to be trued, even when they come out-of-the-box. Your wheelbuilder may be impatient. Rims may have slag around the spoke holes. The rim may be out-of-spec (circumference is too large or small) and/or not round. You can have a poor mix of hub, spoke, nipple, rim, and lacing pattern. Finally, and this list is not exhaustive, you can have improper tools.

I will choose only a few of these to expand upon (otherwise I’ll be writing all day on my off day).

Tools: Spoke wrenches come in different sizes and shapes. Spokes wrenches wear out and that can lead to the stripping of nipples because they won’t grip securely. We’re all familiar with the ubiquitous Park Tool red handled spoke wrench. It works for about 80% of the wheel build, but once you approach the ultimate spoke tension of a wheel, it becomes slippery to hold and its shape makes precision adjustments –1/16 of a turn — very difficult. At that point I transition to one of the excellent DT Swiss flat sided nipple wrenches. And always, always use the Twist-Resist spoke holder. Spoke wind-up is your enemy.

Assembly of components: There are certain combinations that just don’t work. Black spokes bind where they cross and when using them in a build the wheel requires more frequent stress relief. Aluminum nipples + any rim material = misery because aluminum nipples have more friction. The most challenging builds are: lightweight spokes (DT Swiss, Sapim CX Ray, or Sapim Laser), in black, with aluminum nipples. The spokes won’t slide together as the wheel tensions up, the spokes will rotate when turning the nipples, and the nipples will bind against the rim.

Rim quality control: No rim is truly round. Rims made by Hed usually are and that is why I prefer them. H Plus Son also seems to have good quality control. I haven’t built enough on Mavic to say either way. I have a first run of the new Open Pro UST (19 mm internal) and those built up ok.

The starting point of the rim determines the build experience and the quality of the wheel. When you build a wheel you change the shape of the rim. Build it up, build it down, and you will see that the rim which laid flat to start no longer does. This is why it is generally inadvisable to reuse a rim. But sometimes you do.

We start each wheel by selecting the right spokes, rim, hub and nipples. We recommend a suitable lacing pattern. Once we get it laced we leave a drop of Triflow between the nipple and spoke hole. We apply a drop of linseed oil to the spoke threads as thread lock. If we are reusing a hub we use spoke head washers to firmly seat the spoke head. If we are reusing a rim we use nipple washers to ensure even tensioning and to better distribute the spoke tension. Finally we build it slowly because cutting corners for speed leads to problems later.

 

We have found what we were looking for

Unlike Bono.

Gathering shells on the beach

I needed an image that communicated searching and finding. This is my mother shelling on Sanibel.

On one of the applications for one of the wholesalers I described our shop as being located at the dynamic corner of Robert Street North and 9th. This is turning out to be an understatement.

Through our door have walked artists, travelers, business owners, office workers and so many others whose stories are far different from my own. Yesterday I had a conversation with a builder about gentrification and displacement. A few hours later when the sun was low and I was getting ready to close up and crack a beer, a man pushing a walker came through our front door. He started name dropping Campagnolo, Shimano and Suntour. Turns out, his buddy in high school set up a shell company to buy bike parts at wholesale for his personal bike builds. Amazing. When we wrapped up he was talking about how he might harness one of the Lime scooters for a little extra speed. Brilliant.

We love our corner. It is a real crossroads which is something that we need more of… because it builds empathy. The last thing I overheard before I closed up shop last night was ‘there are some good restaurants up that way, and a great grocery store, but this is really a bad part of downtown.’ As the kids say: Thank U, Next!

What are people riding?

dirty dirty chain

This one doesn’t need a doctor it needs a priest! The chain couldn’t be saved and this customer is a candidate for a wet condition/dry lube.

Last month Anne Lusk (Harvard School of Public Health) posted an article on CityLab entitled “You Can’t Design Bike-Friendly Cities Without Considering Race and Class.” Word! To sum up her argument: Put more bike lanes where people are riding because ‘the single biggest group of Americans who bike to work live in households that earn less than $10,000 yearly.

Since opening we’ve been doing a lot of work on bikes that have 7 speed freewheels and 8 speed cassettes. If there’s a disc brake in the equation, then it is most likely mechanical. These bikes are being ridden for transportation not recreation or fitness. The concerns of these customers don’t start with ‘we need more protected bike lanes’; it’s more like: ‘I need a good place to lock up my bike so I don’t have another one stolen.’

So, yeah, planners, think about the people who are really riding instead of those we are trying to entice to give up their cars. (Psst: Those people will be fine no matter what!)

What we are learning

Being a problem solver is the best part about being a bike mechanic. There’s usually a new challenge every day. Uneven wearing of the front brake pads? 1) check whether the wheel is properly inserted into the frame; 2) check whether the brake is properly centered and the pads equally spaced; 3) ask whether the customer has worked on his bike (actually, this is Step 0); 4) check the wheel’s dish; and 5) check the alignment of the fork’s dropouts. In general, the diagnostic should progress from least to most invasive cause/solution. So far we’ve seen two bikes with uneven front brake wear and both were caused by bent dropouts.

In my former assignment we didn’t see much of that. That’s probably a consequence of who we were serving: roadies riding carbon forks. I also wasn’t doing this…

Chasing and facing a bb

Chasing and facing a bottom bracket shell. New tools; new tricks. Had to bust out the Park Tool BTS-1 sooner or later. This is a Fairview frame we are building for sale.