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The Oberlin Citibike, and a Case for Bike Theft

by Marco Fuortes



I spent my winter term in New York with a Citibike in my closet. I made the eight-hour drive back with it in the backseat. No, I’m not continuously paying for it. Yes, it’s probably being tracked. No, nobody from Citi Bike is going to make the trek to Ohio in search of it. It’s not just mine; a bunch of people know the lock’s combination. These things can only be communal; no one man can honorably own a Citibike.

Anyone able to unlock the bike is more than welcome to ride the bike, at any time. This gives an endearing impermanence to the thing. The joy of stumbling upon and proudly unlocking the royal blue chariot is counterbalanced by the despair of walking out of class to the empty slot in your bike rack. A few times a week, I’m forced to make an unexpected walk home from a class I biked to. This doesn’t upset me, because I know I’ll pay it forward in just a few hours, when I steal the bike for myself. Maybe the bike unburies a little bit of the latent sadism of its owners. Not maliciously, but in a fun, pranksterous way. The bike has a humanlike spontaneity that I adore: there is real pleasure in something so fleeting, whether it’s stolen from me or I’m the one stealing it. A ride to class is more significant on a Citibike; enjoy it while you can, and cherish it for when you can’t.

One of my close friends is a serial bike thief. For a week in December, he was peering out his window with his eyes fixed on a delectable steal. He couldn’t stop talking about this ol’ dilapidated thing, tossed on its side in the middle of South quad. He had allotted some time for the rightful owner to grab their bike, but once the moral expiration date came about, it quickly and permanently fell into his possession. After a few abysmal spray-paint jobs, it became a new bike, with a new family, where it was treated with much more love. Is this a valid justification for bike theft? Equating it to saving a child from a neglectful household? I don’t believe this is too bold of a comparison. Stealing a single clearly neglected bike is a perfect opportunity for sustainability and spontaneity—two things that are right up Oberlin’s alley.

Illustration by Lydia Rommel, Contributor

The Citibike and the neglected-quad-bike are the spoils of “good” bike theft. These bikes have most definitely been forgotten about, yet give tremendous joy to the new owner. What would happen if we scaled this concept up? The answer: a Citibike for the masses. Or, more accurately, a fleet of them. Entirely composed of the dilapidated unlocked bikes sprawled across campus, which would otherwise have been left to rust. Marked recognizably (perhaps via a terrible spray paint job), such that anyone and everyone knows that they are free game. This should theoretically reduce “bad” bike theft. My roommate, Jascha Maeshiro, when registering his own bike with Campus Safety, learned that most bike thefts on campus are spontaneous. A student is late to class, for example, and decides that picking up an unlocked bike would be a better alternative to sprinting across campus. Only sometimes are the bikes returned to the same rack, in the same condition. This is often not the case. Would it not be wonderful to enact a system in which no individual comes out of class to their own bike missing, while still maintaining the thrill of spontaneous travel? To keep it fun, it would have to be a little bit disorganized. Nobody has the time to fuck around with a lock, or a QR code, or a message board, or any other nonsense. Just take the damn bike and go! Pick up a bike wherever you find it. Leave a bike wherever you bring it. Allow others to do the same, and this beautifully sloppy system will work.

You may be quick to ask the question, “How do we steal the right bikes? There is no justification for stealing and Citibike-ing an in-use bike.” You would be correct. Unfortunately, there is no perfect answer. We could put notes on unlocked bikes that state, “Remove this tag if this bike belongs to you,” and if they remain after a month or so, the bike becomes communalized. This is not an answer without flaws. Those leaving their bikes in a state of long-term storage (study-abroad students, for example) would suffer. Accepting bike donations would ensure nobody is stolen from, but realistically, nobody is going to donate, and this does nothing about the pestilence of ownerless bikes.

Obviously, the communal nature of this project requires communal brainstorming. No one man can come up with a solution for a town’s worth of Citibikes — nor does he have the closet space for them. I urge you to take this problem into your own backseat, ruminate, and assist me with your suggestions.

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