Thieves have stolen more than 500 bikes from outside Washington, D.C.-area Metrorail stations in the past two years, primarily striking in late morning and targeting bicycles with chain locks, according to an investigation by the News4 I-Team.
Undercover camera surveillance by the I-Team shows crooks working as teams to target, unlock and remove bicycles parked just outside stations.
Thefts observed by I-Team cameras happened in broad daylight. In at least one case, a young man appeared to serve as a “lookout," then signaled a second man to use bolt cutters, snap a bicycle lock and attempt the theft.
The I-Team’s review of 2013 and 2014 police reports shows thieves increasingly targeting bicycles parked at stations along the system’s Red Line, including at the Medical Center and Shady Grove stations.
“Just like we are moving our tactics and strategies, so does the criminal," said Metro Transit Police Chief Ron Pavlik.
WMATA police reports also show the agency is making progress in reducing the overall number of thefts, in part through the use of a “bait bike” system, in which undercover transit officers monitor a high-end “decoy” bicycle and arrest thieves who attempt to steal it.
The “decoy” bicycle is a WMATA-owned bicycle with a chain lock, which is often prominently placed during midday hours. Overall, thefts have dropped 36 percent in the past year, according to agency crime reports.
Pavlik said a large number of thefts happen in late morning and early afternoon, when bike racks are at their fullest, and stations are less congested with passengers. High-end bikes are the most targeted.
“It’s a crime of opportunity to some degree," Pavlik said. "If there’s a market for a bike, then you’ll see the bike’s going to be stolen."
News-4 I-Team cameras captured images of a theft outside the Braddock Road station in Virginia in July. A man who’d just exited the station yanked free WMATA police’s decoy “bait bike” and attempted to ride away.
Undercover officers stopped him along a nearby street, arrested him and charged him with grand larceny. The bike’s valued at more than $3,000, and he is scheduled for a court appearance in September.
When the I-Team asked the suspect why he’d stolen the bike, he responded “I wasn't even going to use it myself, I was going to give it to my son.”
Pavlik said commuters who park bikes at rail stations are encouraged to use stronger, less vulnerable U-locks to better protect against theft.
“Use two U locks. One for the front of the frame and one to the rear tire and the frame,” Pavlik said. He said nearly half of the system’s rail stations also offer bike lockers, containers in which bicycles can be stored inside.