May 21—Portland police are reporting a high rate of bicycle thefts at a time when a soaring global demand for bikes has led to a shortage in Maine.
From Jan. 1 to May 16, 61 bicycle thefts have been reported to Portland police, a "concerning trend" that prompted police to advise residents to not leave bikes outside even if secured by a lock, said David Singer, a department spokesman. The department does not have data on such thefts from previous years to gauge how dramatic the increase has been, he said.
Investigators have found that "thieves often drive throughout the city to find bikes to sell on Craiglist and other for-sale-by-owner websites," Singer said.
Most of the bicycle thefts reported to Portland police this year have been since the beginning of April. Singer said there were five thefts in January, two in February, five in March and 21 in April. From May 1 to 16, the department has received reports of 28 thefts.
Cities across the country have reported increases in bike thefts since the beginning of the pandemic as demand for bicycles spiked, although investigators in Portland have not released any information about possible motives behind the rash of thefts in the city. Bike Index, a nonprofit bike registry, told NPR that rising demand, an increase in ridership and a shortage of bikes nationwide has likely contributed to the rise in thefts.
Reports of bike thefts in Boston rose 28 percent in the last year, while New York City saw a nearly 28 percent spike in bicycle thefts from March to September of last year compared to the same period in 2019, The New York Times reported.
Brian Danz, who works at the Portland Gear Hub, said he's heard about the rising thefts locally, which he attributes at least in part to people taking up biking again and being a little lax about security.
He said the thefts also are driven by the shortage of new bikes and also by people being unable to buy parts to fix bikes and deciding to buy a used bike instead.
The Gear Hub doesn't buy used bikes and takes only donated two-wheelers, which are resold at a discount or used in biking programs, he said.
Danz believes many of the thefts target those cyclists who are newcomers to Maine and think the state is safer, or people who took up bike-riding as an activity to pursue during the pandemic and don't take precautions like buying a good bike lock.
The coronavirus pandemic triggered a boom in cycling and bicycle sales the United States has not witnessed since the oil crisis of 1973 and early 1974. People tired of being cooped up indoors during pandemic lockdowns rushed out to buy bikes and other exercise and outdoor gear. Surging global demand, coupled with factory closures in Asia in the early days of the pandemic, created an acute shortage made worse by sustained buying.
U.S. bicycle sales jumped 50 percent in 2020 from the year before, according to the market research firm NPD Group Inc. of Port Washington, New York. Almost nine out of 10 U.S. bike shops have less than half their normal inventory, and in some cases they have less than 20 percent. Manufacturers expect shortages in the market until 2023, according to the National Bicycle Dealers Association.
Police advise owners to take a photo of their bicycle and record the serial number. It is often difficult to trace bicycles back to anyone without further identifying markings, receipts, or proof of purchase or ownership, Singer said.
In addition to registering bicycles, the Bike Index recommends people try to prevent theft by bringing their bike inside, investing in a good quality lock, properly locking bikes when left outside and paying attention to what they are locking their bike to.
Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy contributed to this report.