Lileks: Nobody steals Nice bikes in the land o'Nice

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 3, 2012 - 5:55 PM

Next time you have a cynical friend from a Big City come to town, take him to a Nice Ride station. Explain how people can take a bike and drive it around for as long as they want.

"Where do they usually find the bikes?" he'll ask. "The river, or Craigslist?"

No, you explain. We're not like that. People return the bikes when they're done with them. We haven't lost one. Makes us proud to be, well, us: Presented with the opportunity to steal bikes, we don't.

That's us! Decent and honest. Even if no one's looking, we'll still take a clean plate for the second run through the buffet line. The very name of the program incorporates Minnesota Nice, and you're surprised the founder wasn't Yasshur Yebetcha.

But perhaps there's something else at work besides our inbred rectitude. Perhaps the conspicuous green bikes are impossible to pawn. Maybe it's the difficulty of getting away with it. You have to have a credit or debit card to get a bike, so you've left your financial DNA all over the scene. Stealing a bike under these circumstances would be like robbing a bank by passing a note written on your checking account deposit slip.

A pickpocket could probably use your card, but your average miscreant doesn't get a purloined Visa and think: All right! Now's the chance to rent a bike! Maybe hit the Redbox! Crime spree!

If everyone was truly Good, we wouldn't have a bike-theft problem at all. But we do. Our family had a bike stolen from our garage, but it was our fault; the door was left open, which is generally understood to mean, "Hey there, passing citizen with an eye for opportunity: Take what you can." No doubt some pitiful Jean Valjean, desperate to give his small child a bike -- her little shins, wasting away! -- took it, muttering a thanks to us and a prayer for forgiveness.

Or, someone just stole it, rode it home, probably passed a police car whose occupants thought: There's a fellow secure in his masculinity, riding a little pink bike with streamers -- then left it in the street. You can console yourself that he'll do jail time eventually, when he's stolen his 36th car, but it's cold compensation.

Statistics are vague; the Minneapolis website on bike-theft prevention says that "thousands" are lost or stolen every year. I don't know how you lose a bike. It's not like you go through the garage over and over again: it's got to be here somewhere, but where did I put it? You call the cops to report it stolen, the voice on the phone sighs: Did you check the hooks in the wall? It might be hanging there. Oh, of course! Last place you look.

Let's assume half were lost, and the "thousands" are two: that's a thousand stolen bikes. It's nice that the law-abiding people who follow the rules don't steal bikes, but it would be nicer to discourage theft of private bikes by making the thieves pay. Say, make them spend a day at the Nice Ride drop-off center, reinflating the tires. With their mouth. Or legalize bike locks that deliver powerful electric shocks, making thieves easier to spot. That's him, officer. The one with the smoking hair and chattering teeth who's blinking on and off.

Anyway. The Nice Ride is a good start; the concept could be expanded. Say, racks of cars you could rent for short periods of time. Call it the Auto-Vehicle Individual Service, or AVIS.

Rentable Jetpacks would be nice, but it takes a while to get the hang of those; with some practice you can fly around with skill and elan, but the first few weeks people who work in the IDS building would be scared witless by newbies thumping into the glass on the 40th floor.

Nice Rail would let you put down a $100,000 deposit and take a light-rail car anywhere you want to go, as long as it has expensive fixed tracks with complex overhead electrical infrastructure.

We'd need money, of course. Nice Ride is sponsored by insurance companies, hospitals, restaurants, retailers, $350K from the city and a grant from the federal cornucopia. Or maybe private industry could step in to supplement the Nice Ride. After you've turned in your bike, how do you get to the next place?

A moped, a towrope, roller skates: You're in business.

jlileks@startribune.com 612-673-7858

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