Is Austin Bicycle Theft On The Rise?

Is Austin Bicycle Theft On The Rise?

There were more bike thefts reported in the heart of downtown Austin during the first five months of 2011, compared to 2010, according to city police records I compiled. However, reports are down in the South Congress area.

I know this because I decided to do my best Council Member Chris Riley impression — sans silver hair — and work on reducing my car usage in favor of pedal power to commute to the Capitol area. I bought a bike over the weekend, did some research and promptly shelled out another $200 for accessories, aimed mostly at anti-theft.

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Critical Mass Austin: Political Activists or “Lawless Time Thieves”?

This was the question raging on the Austin Chronicle’s message board in early April after the arrest of two bikers participating in one of Austin’s more controversial political parades—the monthly Critical Mass bike ride.

The Chronicle reported that riders James McCue and Nathaniel Hill had been arrested for running a red light at the Sixth and Congress intersection, a form of civil disobedience Critical Mass has fashioned into something of an art form (others might liken it to a tragicomedy), since its emergence on the streets of San Francisco in the early 1990s.

With no predetermined route, the “leaderless” cluster of bikers meet at 5 P.M. on the last Friday of each month on UT’s West Mall— located on Guadalupe between 22nd & 23rd Streets. Here a collection of fixed-gears, two story trick bikes, unicycles, plain-old road bikes and a man transporting a giant boom-box in a wheel-sled participate in something resembling a seasonal mating ritual, as they swirl around the West Mall fountain building up mojo.

When enough bikers have coalesced to form “the critical mass,” a peloton large enough to pierce and block an intersection of oncoming auto-traffic, an unspoken euphoria spreads throughout the gathering. Then, at a seemingly innocuous moment, everyone slips into the congested afternoon traffic to the sound of horns and pounding beats. Through the open windows of cars and trucks come the sounds of encouragements and admonitions—a reminder of the ambivalence Austinites feel towards this motley crew of vigilantes.

It is no coincidence that their monthly vigil takes place during rush hour on the busiest day of the week. Though the unofficial CM website claims that the organization “doesn’t have any specific agenda or goals,” they do confess that most riders “would like to see an end to the car culture.”

“Everyone has their own reasons for riding on Critical Mass,” writes Michael Bluejay, the operator of the site. “Some see it as a protest of cars, others just like to go on a fun bike ride. After being menaced every day by cars, many of us find it exhilarating to ride with 50-100 other cyclists in a fun, supportive atmosphere.”

Critical Mass has had a long and controversial history in Austin. An early adopter of the movement, the city first responded to the bike ride with intense police scrutiny. Bluejay writes that during the first year of the ride, “typically, dozens of motorcycle, car, and bike cops would be waiting at the meeting site before the ride started, and ride with the mass, looking for any excuse to issue tickets or make arrests.” Though CM enjoys a more amiable relation with the city’s police force today, it has not been without some bumps in the road.

In late September of 2001 an incensed Jeep driver, frustrated by delays, accelerated into the gathered bikers, hitting one. After exiting his car to confront the riders, the man returned to his vehicle only to cruise into a Honda Civic parked at a red light because there was a bike lodged around his car’s axle.

The event was carefully chronicled by Bicycle Austin info, including video documentation, and is held up both as an example of the danger inherent in this kind of demonstration as well as the unfair portrayal it has received in the media. According to the website, “The Statesman ran one version of the events, the Chronicle ran another,” pointing to the cultural split which the movement has inspired.

On the same message board where the debate took place over April’s arrests, one of the first participants of Critical Mass Austin summed things up eloquently:

“It’s a fun, empowering participatory event that also incited near-fatal road rage on my very first tour. We desperately need improved bicycle infrastructure just as urban centers are increasingly finding cycling preferable to hunting out parking spaces. But we also need improved services. I don’t expect sympathy from rush hour commuters, but I do expect the APD to cease operating as if cyclists live with a level of privileges and liberties below that of both motorists and pedestrians.

The city needs to put cycling issues at the forefront of their agendas, if for no other reason than to prevent downtown from becoming a rush hour battleground.”

Whichever side of the debate you may fall under, it’s hard to deny that Austin owes some of its patented “weirdness” to the continued success of Critical Mass. Moreover, participants argue that the ride has helped transform the role of bikers in Austin, paving the way for new bike lanes and making bikers more “visible.”

As someone who’s been on a few rides (mainly as a spectator, though the line gets a bit blurred), I can tell you, there are few local events as exhilarating as riding neck and neck with four hundred people in the heart of downtown Austin.

This Friday the 29th will be a big day for Critical Mass, with the monthly bike ride falling on the same day as the “Full Moon Cruise,” a midnight ride through the city. If you’re bold enough, and if Critical Mass’s brand of activism squares with your values, this will be the perfect day to wheel by.

And forgetting everything else about it, Critical Mass is admirably inclusive. More like an event than an organization, anyone will feel welcomed by this odd lot of peddlers.


panhandling is not the real issue

I learned something interesting this week.  The anti-panhandling ordinance is only enforceable if the ‘victim’ or another witness requests that the ‘offender’ be cited.  Otherwise, the police are not obliged to intervene.  I’ve come to a conclusion regarding the perceived safety of downtown Austin: panhandling is a red herring issue.

The real issue is the ARCH doesn’t have the capacity to service the thousands of homeless people in Austin.  They try, but can’t, and those under served are relegated to the streets of the Entertainment District.  These people are easy prey for drug dealers.  Over the past six months I’ve seen a surge in drug dealers and gangs staking their turf.  Ask any resident that has a view of East 5th street if they’ve recently seen some hooded guy loitering in the middle of a sidewalk for hours on end.  What are they doing?

The convention center, hotels, retailers, and residents are becoming more vigilant and zero tolerance on Downtown Austin crime is becoming the battle cry.  Downtown stakeholders seem to have reached an unofficial consensus that the police must begin to: 1) shift to a beat system of patrol 2) spread out on weekend nights 3) be more effectual in responding to 911.   As a participant in many of the Downtown Austin stakeholder groups, I tell you that the Police force is given plenty of slack.  Judging by the frustrated voices at recent meetings, I don’t know how much longer that will continue.

Day four, becoming a model urban neighborhood: what does Downtown Austin need?

Each day this week I am serving up one item, with non-politically correct candor, that Downtown Austin needs to become a model of re-urbanization, as I see it.

Politicians love to talk, form task forces, and spend time doing everything except for making decisions as they are needed.  So, this is an appeal to Downtown Austin stakeholders that know how to get things done:  the residents, developers, retailers, and land owners.

ARCH and related social services should be moved away from Sixth Street while remaining in Downtown

This month we’ve read about two measures being discussed to cut down on crime in Downtown Austin: 1) installing cameras, 2) installing lights in front of Caritas.  These efforts will not work because they don’t address the real problem. The ARCH, Salvation Army, and Caritas are the hub for Downtown Austin’s increasingly frequent and violent crime.  The crime comes from drug dealers praying on the homeless and the mentally ill.  Prostitution lives around these places.  Drugs are used as a form of payment.  According to the police, Forty-two percent of all drug arrests in downtown happen within a block of these buildings.  That is an amazing statistic.

During a midnight to 3am observation tour for 6ixth Street Austin, myself and a few other Downtown stakeholders stopped and talked with homeless people outside of the ARCH.  Some were under the influence of something, but generally not hostile.  If anything, they were very chatty and candid about their problems, and the problems surrounding the ARCH.  Below are some of the more interesting things we were told.

  • Drug dealers arrive from other parts of town to sell to the mentally ill and homeless
  • The southeast corner of 7th and Trinity (Caritas) is a big drug corner
  • Crack house at 8th and Neches (pic)
  • Crack house on Neches btw 8th and 9th (pic)

Why on earth did they place the ARCH across from a major liquor store and a block from Austin’s biggest weekend party?  Downtown Austin stakeholders must work with the city to make a politically volatile decision: move the ARCH away from Sixth Street to significantly affect positive change.


Capitalism is alive and well in downtown Austin.

KVUE is reporting on “parking lot impostors” that pretend to work for the parking company and take your money.   I prefer to call these people disenfranchised capitalistic carnival barkers.  According to “Parking lot impostors in downtown Austin are costing customers and parking lot owners money. Police say the issue generates more complaints downtown than any other. KVUE’s Jim Bergamo reports.”   In addition to being scammed for your cash, you’re likely to be towed, too.  This video is not news to anyone that spends time downtown, but it’s nice to see some coverage in the mass media.

The guys waiving you into a public parking space are another breed of bum-preneur.  You know the guys waving their arms along 5th street offering you a public parking space with the additional bonus of them looking after your car if you could spare some change.

link to video