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Stealing mobility
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What if it were an accepted fact of life that if you owned a car in Savannah it would be stolen at least once?

Or that some folks might be victimized multiple times? I'm not talking about an acknowledgement of risk, but of an expectation that theft definitely would occur, just as sure as a big parade will be held downtown in March.

It's difficult to imagine this level of complacency becoming the norm. But we may be nearing that point when it comes to our attitudes about bicycle theft.

When incidents spike, the Savannah Chatham Metropolitan Police Department generally issues a press release urging cyclists to register their bicycles, purchase and use sturdy locks, and store their bicycles inside. Each of these is an excellent theft prevention strategy, but the last is simply impossible for many people. It also ignores the fact that even if people can bring their bicycles inside their residences, their workplaces or other businesses may not be as accommodating.

Try rolling your bicycle into the lobby of a public building, a college classroom or a crowded restaurant at lunchtime, and see what kind of reception you get. Yet bicycles are stolen from right outside these places on a startlingly regular basis.

Late last year it happened to two people I know on the same day. And it has probably happened to you or someone you know.

One bike was locked to a street sign in front of the Chatham County Courthouse on Montgomery Street; the other to a bike rack on Abercorn Street near Forsyth Park. Both thefts occurred in broad daylight.

The victims both described the responding SCMPD officers as sympathetic and helpful, but neither bicycle has been recovered.

One of the men replaced his bicycle almost immediately and purchased a more expensive lock. He says he is even more selective about where he locks his bike, although it's hard to name a location more seemingly secure than in front of the courthouse, what with police officers and sheriff's deputies coming and going all day.

The other says the experience has caused him to reconsider cycling. He'd owned the bike for less than two weeks before it was stolen. Since this is the second bike he's lost to thieves, he's decided he doesn't "want to deal with theft or worrying about it getting stolen anymore."

Sadly, many cyclists are similarly dissuaded from going back to the bike shop and getting back in the saddle. Several years ago, I conducted a survey of local college students, in which I asked about factors that prevented them from riding their bicycles more often. Bike theft was the No. 1 answer, ranking even higher than fear of being hit by a car.

My friends, who lost their bikes last year, were both elective cyclists. They owned cars, but each decided to ride his bike to work for different reasons, including health benefits, saving money on parking and motor vehicle upkeep, and a concern for the environment.

They both cited another reason for going by bike: They enjoyed it.

Other Savannahians also enjoy riding bicycles, but for them it is not a choice. They depend on their bicycles to get to work, to the store or to school.

When their bicycles are stolen, so is their mobility. For them, the loss of the bike brings the same feeling of violation that others might experience when they discover their car is missing from the driveway.

And the theft equally disrupts the rhythm of daily life. They may miss work shifts, medical appointments, meetings and classes.

From a law enforcement perspective, bicycle theft is a difficult problem to tackle. Police departments in other parts of the country conduct sting operations and employ other techniques aimed at catching bike thieves in the act. While these methods have lowered theft rates, the effect is usually only temporary.

Still, that should not stop the SCMPD - along with government, community and business leaders - from acknowledging the seriousness of bicycle theft and the significant hardships it places on people. We must study best practice models, develop solutions and implement them quickly and continuously. With so many Savannahians using bicycles every day, by choice or by necessity, serious attention is required.

None of us would stand for car theft as a certainty. We'd demand immediate action. It's time we acted the same way about bikes. cs

John Bennett is vice chairman of the Savannah Bicycle Campaign.