Stolen Bike? A Harvard Student Might Have An Answer

With, would-be-victims can better protect themselves.

When your bike gets stolen — and since bicycle theft is basically risk free, chances are it will get stolen — you’ll take a quick trip through the stages of grief. You’ll put up some impotent, ranty post on Craigslist while visions of dismembering the perp dance through your head, and then, at some point, you’ll accept it: That bike ain’t ever coming back. So you’ll either buck up and buy a new one or dust off the old one, and you’ll promise yourself you’ll be smarter.

When Harvard grad student Lulu Li’s bike was stolen just three weeks after she bought it, she applied her smarts to the problem and came up with a solution that we all can use to get smarter. She built a website that plots locations around town from which bikes have been taken, noting the available details on each theft (as provided by the Cambridge P.D.) The site hopes to supplement police-provided data by letting theft victims record the details of a theft directly to her site, too. Her hope is to create a tool that identifies high-theft areas, makes would-be victims more aware of the risk to their rides, and perhaps even gets a stolen bike or two returned to its owner. The result is

She’s using all the data she’s collected to compile statistics on bike theft. A few aren’t surprising:

• Harvard Square and Kendall are the two theft hot spots in Cambridge.
• 66 percent of thefts happen to bikes locked with cable locks. (Buy a U-lock people!)
• The summer, particularly August, is the height of theft season.

But one of them is really surprising. You might think the theft rate would more or less climb with the ridership rate, but according to Li’s data, that’s not true. From 2005 to 2010, thefts in Cambridge increased 97 percent, while bike ridership has increased 60 percent. If I had to guess, I’d say that more new riders don’t think they need U-locks, which makes for easy pickings for thieves. If you think buying a $40 lock to protect a $100 bike is superfluous, then you’ve never had a bike stolen.

Personally, I’ve lost two bikes, one of them from my old place in Brighton, and not a day goes by where I don’t scan the streets for my now 16-year-old Trek. But I also never leave my bike anywhere without at least one U lock that locks the rear wheel to the frame to some immovable object (I never got why people lock the front wheel; they’re a tiny bit easier to steal, yes, but they cost less), and often I loop a cable lock through the front wheel and the seat. Two bikes was enough to make me borderline obsessed with security.

Maybe a quick scan of the crowd-sourced map on will make others similarly paranoid before they have to lose two bikes to the cause.