Less than a year after its launch, Baltimore's $2.36 million bike-sharing system has fallen victim to the city's rising crime problem.
Charm City has lost so many of the program's bikes to theft and vandalism that the city has temporarily shut down Baltimore Bike Share while officials work to change the bike kiosks' locking mechanism and tighten security.
"The crime issue in Baltimore is real," said Liz Cornish, executive director of the Baltimore-based advocacy group Bikemore. "Bike Share is a victim of that."
Officials say thieves figured out a way to compromise the docking system, ripping bikes off the stations to later abandon them in alleys and on sidewalks. Transportation officials declined to say how many of the program's 230 bikes have been stolen since the program started in October — nor would they say how many of the bikes have not been recovered.
Because the bicycles are equipped with a GPS tracking system, many are eventually found. But in some cases, the bikes recovered were in such bad shape that technicians were spending upward of 12 hours repairing just one, officials and advocates familiar with the problem said.
Even with additional resources, the repair shop couldn't keep up with the maintenance, leaving system users with few, if any, options at the city's 25 bike kiosks. The Baltimore Bike Share app last week showed a limited number of bikes on the system on any given day. A station downtown with 15 docks had only one available bike on an early morning; a nearby station had none available. On Saturday, three stations in the heavily touristed Inner Harbor area were empty, even though the app showed a few bikes were available.
About 100 of the bicycles were out of service awaiting maintenance one week in August, the Baltimore Sun reported. The theft problem was so severe this summer that two people were assigned to bike recovery efforts, the newspaper said.
Unlike in other major bike systems where thefts usually occur when a user leaves the bike unattended, the concerns in Baltimore have centered on the ease in which thieves could get a bike out of its locking mechanism, a law enforcement official said.
The culprits generally are teenagers, police spokesman T.J. Smith said. In one case, a juvenile was captured on video "rocking the bike and jarring it loose" before police arrived to arrest him, Smith said.
The high rate of thefts and vandalism in the program's first year of operation hampered Baltimore's ambition to grow the network from the original 230 bicycles at 25 stations to 500 bicycles at 50 stations in the spring.
"Every system experiences its growing pains and this was our growing pain," said the city's transit chief, Veronica McBeth. But if it's a setback, McBeth would not admit it, saying that Baltimore's commitment is to make the program — and biking — a successful mode of transportation.
Expansion plans will resume after the security enhancements are made, McBeth said. The program closed Sunday and will reopen Oct. 15, city officials said.
The bike-sharing theft problem has presented yet another challenge for the city's police department, which has its hands full addressing a soaring homicide rate, with 248 killings as of Saturday. Last week, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis asked a panel of state lawmakers for more resources, including stricter accountability for juvenile offenders.
The police department does not keep count of bike thefts, Smith said, but he confirmed the department has filed charges of theft and destruction of property in cases associated with vandalism of the bike-sharing system. Police in the Inner Harbor Unit and Central District, where the vast majority of the kiosks are located, work with the program to address the concerns, he said.
"We are hopeful that with the revised security measures being implemented, this will be less of an issue moving forward," he said.
In the next four weeks, the city's vendor will retrofit the bike stations with a new, more secure, locking system and make other upgrades to improve the system's safeguards against vandalism. The maintenance backup will also be eliminated during that period.
City transportation officials said the bike vendor, Canadian-based Bewegen Technologies, has agreed to assume the costs of the improvements. The company could not be reached for comment last week, but its executive officer, Alain Ayotte, told the Baltimore Sun that the locking system in Baltimore meets industry standards. He said Baltimore has presented problems not seen in any of the other cities where the company has its equipment. Bewegen has established small bike-sharing systems in four other U.S. cities and five cities in Europe, according to its website.
Transportation officials say they hope the enhanced features will improve the riders' experience.
In 11 months of operation, users have taken 40,000 trips and traveled 60,000 miles. Nearly 1,800 people are active users. And, advocates and officials say the program is critical to expanding the city's transportation options and encouraging more active lifestyles. However, its full potential has been hindered by the thefts and maintenance backups.
"When there are bikes in the system, by every metric, the system has been successful," Cornish said.
"While it's unfortunate that they are taking the system offline, I think it is the right decision in order to be able to hit the reset button," she said, "and take a breath and evaluate what is it going to take to make this bike-share system work."