Steal This Bike

If you saw a man on Hawthorne liberating a bike with 2-foot bolt cutters, would you intervene? Say something? Call the cops? You may think so, but we say fat chance.

This story first ran in the Aug. 23, 2006, edition of Willamette Week.

Earlier this month, Portland Police Chief Rosie Sizer presented Citizen Medals of Heroism to four men and one woman who chased and captured a knife-wielding sex offender at the Oregon Zoo.

Last month, a Parkrose man sat on a burglar until police showed up. Back in April, bystanders tackled a man who grabbed an Eastern Oregon couple’ s 2-year-old daughter as they got off the MAX near Pioneer Place mall.

The incidents prompted a front-page story this month in The Oregonian, whose headline boldly proclaimed, “Portlanders often step up to risks.” Portland, it seems, is a city chock-full of citizen heroes.

“Good Samaritans. Bronson’s Brigade. Whatever you want to call them, they’re out there,” reporter Joseph Rose wrote.

Without diminishing those acts of bravery, we wondered if Portlanders would be as likely to stop a more prevalent, less serious crime that has special resonance in our town.

We were reminded of an infectious video making the rounds on YouTube wherein a New Yorker steals his own bike and nobody tries to stop him. Surely latte-sipping, righteous, progressive, civically engaged Portlanders couldn’t be as callous as that. Right?

C’mon, the only thing Portlanders take more seriously than their bikes are dogs. We’re among the top five cycling cities in the country, according to the League of American Bicyclists. About seven in 10 of us own bikes, the Portland pro -pedal group Bicycle Transportation Alliance estimates.

More than 1,000 bikes are reported stolen in the city each year. And bike thefts were up nearly 10 percent between 2004 and 2005, according to police figures. The downtown core and Lloyd Center were the hardest-hit areas.

To find out whether Portlanders are good Samaritans when it comes to bike theft, we sent 22-year-old WW intern Josh Silverman out to Pioneer Courthouse Square, the Park Blocks, Portland State University’s campus, Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard and PGE Park last week armed with several lengths of link chain, a padlock, a pair of bright red 24 -inch bolt cutters and instructions to “steal” his own bike. We filmed the whole thing.

Here’s what happened:

It’s in the mid-60s and overcast. At just before 10 am, Pioneer Courthouse Square isn’t crowded, but it isn’t empty, either. Buses lumber north on Southwest 6th Avenue. The sidewalks around the square hold a steady flow of TriMet riders and people going about their business downtown.

Silverman, wearing a pair of well-worn gray work pants and a green thrift-store T-shirt over a ratty, long-sleeve undershirt, approaches on Morrison Street. and turns up 6th, headed for a red-and-white Giant mountain bike chained to a blue city bike rack. His bolt cutters protrude from a satchel slung over his shoulder.

A man in a maroon shirt is chaining up his bike at the next rack over. Directly across the street, two women stand talking. A guy with a red backpack goes by walking his dog.

Silverman removes the tool from his bag and goes to work on the chain. The flrst snip doesn’t go all the way through, and he tries to pry the bent pieces apart by hand. They won’t give. As he makes another cut, a man and u woman walking through the square pass right by him looking in his direction. They’d have to be blind not to see him. Two more people walk by on the opposite side.

He removes the chain. A bus rolls by.

The man in the maroon shirt approaches and says, “Oh, you forgot your key, huh?”

“Yeah,” Silverman says, and the man keeps walking.

By the time Silverman gets the chain and bolt cutters back in his bag, rolls up one pant leg and rides off, five people have walked right by him. From start to finish, the theft takes a minute and 13 seconds.

No one tries to stop him.

Watch video of Jacob Silverman stealing his own bike in 2006.

In 1964, a woman named Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death in front of her apartment in the Kew Gardens section of Queens, N.Y., while about 40 people who saw or heard the 45-minute attack did nothing to help. Admittedly, our little experiment was nowhere near so extreme as that famous example, but two social psychology professors say the reasons no one did anything remain the same. The phenomenon is known as “bystander apathy,” and it’s been the subject of numerous studies over the past 40 years.

Starting in the late ‘60s, psychologists set up experiments to test people’s reactions to people’s reactions to emergencies. In one case, smoke was piped into a room full of survey-takers who, with the exception of the guinea pig, were instructed to pay it no mind. In another, students participating in a discussion via an intercom hear one of the participants choking and calling out for help. A third example tracked store patrons’ reactions to someone shoplifting while the clerk is in a back room.

The psychologists found that the greater the number of people who were around, the less likely it was that anyone would do anything.

That’s because we take a lot of social cues from other people, especially in situations that are ambiguous, says University of Oregon psychology professor Sara Hodges.

“If no one else is reacting, people question their own idea of what’s going on,” Hodges says. People often don’t want to be embarrassed if they size up a situation wrong—like accusing someone who lost their keys of stealing a bike—or have the spotlight turned on them as they get involved.

Also, the more people who are around, the more diffused the responsibility to intervene becomes, she says. If you’re the only one there, it’s up to you to stop a mugger, but if there are 30 people, it’s easier not to act because each shares only a little slice of the onus.

Hodges says she frequently has lunch at a busy UO campus eatery called Holy Cow. When the line to get food is really long, she often pays the cashier in advance and then simply walks out with her food when she gets it. The other patrons wouldn’t know she had paid, but no one has ever tried to stop her or said anything.

“I’d never do it, but I could probably walk out without paying,” she says. “I always feel like I need to tell them I’ve already paid.”

It’s lunchtime, and the Park Blocks at the heart of PSU’s campus are abuzz with activity. Lines form at several food carts. Students and faculty hustle around on unknown errands, mill about chatting, talk on cell phones and zip through on bikes. Silverman approaches a corner of the student union where the bike has been chained with the bolt cutters protruding from his bag. He glances around furtively before getting to work.

Within 15 seconds, five people pass within a few feet of him. One woman does a double take and keeps going. A few in line for food turn around to watch, but quickly lose interest.

Over the 90-odd seconds it takes to free the bike and ride away, 15 people walk by, many close enough to reach out and touch him. And he would have been visible to at least that many more sitting or walking through other parts of the park.

The only comment he draws is “Nice bike,” from a blond woman in her 30s.

“Thanks,” Silverman replies.

Unbeknownst to the bystanders to this theft, Silverman had done the same thing less than 15 minutes earlier one block away. If one of the people who watched him steal the bike outside Lincoln Hall at the corner of Mill and Broadway had called campus security or the police, maybe the second theft could have been thwarted.

After all, a Portlander might be unwilling to go up against a thief, even a small one, holding the equivalent of a baseball bat with scissors on the end. But we thought surely someone would call the cops.

According to county dispatchers and PSU’ s Public Safety Office, however, no one called to inform the authorities about any of the seven thefts Silverman pulled in plain sight last Wednesday.

That’s right, we committed seven bike thefts in broad daylight in busy, public places and no one tried to stop us or even called the police.

Now you might be saying to yourself, “I would have done something—at least called the cops.”

“Don’t bet on it, " says University of Kansas psychology professor Daniel Batson. “What we think we would do and what we’d actually do are often not the same. That’s why we [social scientists] actually observe behavior instead of just asking people what they’d do.”

In such a situation , a number of factors come into play, he says. Besides the number of people around, the level of ambiguity in the act makes a difference. A woman screaming that her child has been kidnapped is pretty obvious, but Silverman could have actually lost his keys—and besides, if he was going to steal the bike, he wouldn’t be so obvious about it, right? And he looks like he might be able to afford a bike like that ....

“It’s easy to come up with rationalizations,” Batson says.

But aren’t young, energetic, optimistic college students who are ready to save the world more likely to do something than the downtown suit-and-tie set?

This draws a chuckle from Batson.

“College students are people, too,” he says. “They’re busy, they’re not sure, they don’t want to look alarmist, they’re thankful it’s not their bike.”

For our theft at Southeast 37th Avenue and Hawthorne Boulevard, we upped the ante by adding a sketchy-looking blue hoodie to Silverman’s ensemble. Not only was he right in front of the display windows of the Oasis Cafe and blocking half the busy sidewalk, he was in full view of about a dozen people eating and drinking outside the Bagdad Cafe and Starbucks just after 3 pm. Again, no reaction except a double take from a guy on his cell phone, who walked by twice as he chatted and paced.

Portland Police Bureau spokesman Sgt. Brian Schmautz says he’s not surprised to learn that no one did anything or called 911.

“Most people are just living their lives and not paying a lot of attention,” he says. “But if they hear someone screaming, ‘Help me! Help me!’ that tends to bring out the good Samaritans.”

Police don’t recommend citizens try to stop crimes they see being committed, but calling 911 and sticking around to act as a witness are both very much welcome.

On Aug. 16, the day of our experiment, six bikes were listed as stolen on’s stolen-bikes page. Among them was Vincent Alvarez’s Cannondale Volvo MTB, which was taken from the fence next to the Saturday Market between noon and 2 pm by someone with bolt cutters.

“I bought this bike used and have babied it,” he wrote. “I would love to get it back. It has been the best bike I have ever owned.”

“I think a lot of people don’t realize how devastating it can be for some people who own bikes,” says Evan Manvel, executive director of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance.

Stronger, U-bolt locks can help, he says, but even those can broken with the aide of a little liquid nitrogen. “You can’t theft-proof a bike.”

Employers and building owners can help by providing places for bikes to be locked up inside, Manvel says.

Actually, we did encounter one good Samaritan during our final theft.

As Silverman wrestled with the chain hooked to a “No Parking " sign outside PGE Park at rush hour, Rick Grad, a 26-year-old stockbroker, approached and said, “I don’t mean to be a dick, but that’s your bike, right?”

Silverman told him that it was.

“Well, you’re doing it all wrong,” Grad said, taking the bolt cutters from Silverman and showing him how to get more leverage by bracing one of the handles against the ground.

When we told him what we were really up to, he flushed with classic “You’re on Candid Camera” embarrassment.

“He didn’t look like a crackhead,” explained Grad, who was carrying a folded Wall Street Journal. “It wasn’t like he was a homeless guy riding around on a $2,000 mountain bike. I was hoping he wasn’t trying to steal it.”

Grad said he thought that if Silverman was stealing the bike, he would be able to foil the theft by approaching. If not, he’d be able to lend a hand.

Driving back to WW’s offices after an exciting day walking in the shoes of a bicycle thief, we saw a gray-haired man in a blue shirt kneeling on the sidewalk near a Chinese restaurant on West Burnside Street. Had he just fallen? Had a seizure? A heart attack? It was hard to tell driving by.

But it would have been hard for us to stop. We were in the far lane and the traffic was heavy. Besides, we were in a hurry to get back to the office.