These bright and sunny days are just the time for a bike ride—if your bike hasn’t been stolen, that is. Welcome to Bologna, a city known for its food, prestigious university and vibrant bike culture with a darker side.

Lots of accommodations are made just for bikers. Riders have their own lanes on the sidewalks, and sometimes even dedicated traffic lights.

“Bikes are part of the DNA of what it means to be Bolognese,” said Spring Hill College administrative staff director Todd Waller, who supervises a U.S. study abroad program. “It’s part of people’s physical health, gasoline is six dollars a gallon and it’s a cheaper and healthier way to get around that is also good for the environment.”

Bologna’s thriving bike culture compares favorably with cities like New York, Paris and Amsterdam. The Emilia Romagna region of which it is a part enjoys a long tradition of biking culture, while Bologna Mayor Virginio Merola is aiming to increase bike routes around Bologna.

Bicycles are one of the primary methods of travel around this city, because bikes are more affordable than cars, and easier to maintain. And it’s easier for students to get around on bikes than via cars or public transportation.

But the enjoyment of bike riding can be ruined by the threat of bike thieves. It costs the equivalent of $45 to $55 to buy a new bike, or $5 to $25 to get a stolen one. In Bologna’s Piazza Verdi, in the heart of the university district, thieves openly hawk stolen bikes to potential customers. Several students interviewed in the university district talked about their experiences with bike theft.  All asked that their last names not be used.

BICYCLE THIEVES

Bologna: People-Powered City

Writing by Christopher Bohorquez, Morgan Constuble and Yinxin Liang

Photography by Yinxin Liang

Interpreter: Clelia Cuzzolin

Maria Giulia and Cristina have both been bike theft victims. When someone tried to sell them a bike for $35, they knew right away it was stolen.

Protecting one’s bike from theft can be a challenging.

“Hope is my precaution!” Cristina said.

Giulia said she protected herself by not bothering to buy a bike at all. Even when you lock your bike with a U lock, or lock both the front and back wheels, you may still lose some parts of your bike. Giulia’s experienced bike theft twice.

Once, while her bike was parked in nearby Bolognina, her seat was lifted.  Another time, her whole bike was stolen, from outside her house.

Even Waller was a theft victim. His bike seat was stolen. While on his way home, he saw people he took to be drug dealers with his seat. He shouted at them aggressively, until they dropped the seat and ran away.

Students with fancy bikes sometimes decide to keep them at home, instead of bringing them to the university. Others prefer to walk.  

Even bike thieves can be choosy. Davide, a student at the University of Bologna, offered an interesting story. Once he had a bike that was so old and rusty that not a single thief tried to steal it. One day he simply left his bike unlocked. N’er-do-wells from the Piazza Verdi treated its basket as a trash can, and tried to steal the locked bike next to his, instead.  

Waller associates bike theft with a country in economic crisis.

“There is crime with bikes related to the fact that people are poor here,” he said. “Some of those people happen to be drug dealers and drug addicts. But in general, this is a very low crime area.”

The police detective in charge of bike theft investigations was attending the G7 meeting in Italy, and unavailable for comment, his office said. According to students and bicycle shop owners, using a U-lock instead of a chain lock is an effective way to keep bikes safe. But a U-lock usually costs $25-$40 – or nearly as much as a new low-end bike.

The bike market in Bologna not only provides new bikes, but also offers a recycling service.

Demetra social bike sells repaired bikes. Thieves have tried to sell stolen bikes there — but their low asking price often gives them away. Although the bike theft phenomenon in Bologna is stable, bike prices on the  underground market are all over the map. Bike thieves normally ask for the equivalent of $18-$30, but a desperate seller might ask for as little as $5.      

Fighting Bike Theft  

Many groups and organizations have dedicated themselves to combating bike theft.      

Marco Colombo volunteers for one such group, the student-run  “l'Altra Babele” (the Other Babel). This not-for-profit organization focuses on raising awareness and helping the city out with many different issues, especially bike theft. L'Altra Babele is helping to brand bikes with license plate-like serial numbers. Its members also train people to repair broken bikes; two former students have now opened up their own bike repair shops.

Every two months, l’Altra Babele auctions off bikes. These aren’t typical auctions, as the refurbished bikes aren’t awarded to the highest bidders. Instead, the bikes are given away to individuals who can best capture the auctioneer’s attention, whether through by offering a poem or a joke, or by wearing a crazy outfit. These auctions take place in Piazza Verdi -- the bike thieves’ very stomping grounds!

The stolen bike market notwithstanding, more and more people are determined to help keep Bologna a city that runs on two wheels.  

Street art with a message: "Don't buy stolen bikes!"

Demetra social bike sells repaired bikes. Thieves have turned up there, to try to sell stolen bikes — but their low asking prices are a tipoff.