Josef Bray-Ali is a Strong Towns member and safe streets advocate who runs a bike shop in Los Angeles called Flying Pigeon LA. And if that didn't keep him busy enough, he's also currently running for the District 1 seat on the Los Angeles City Council. The following exciting story comes from Joe's Flying Pigeon LA blog.
A few weeks ago, while I was working late in my bike shop, someone walking by saw my bakfiets cargo bike parked out front and decided to steal it. The bike was locked to itself using a rear wheel lock – so this enterprising crook had to pick up the 70lbs beast and haul it away on one wheel. I was so absorbed in my work at the time I ignored the bumping and rattling taking place in front of the shop (my neighbors did too!) only to emerge at 9:30 p.m. and see that my cargo bike was missing.
My First Reaction
My first reaction after I saw that my bike was gone was to go on the hunt. I got on another bike, rode around the neighborhood, down into the local freeway on-ramps, bridge overpasses, and camping spots to look for local junkies trying to strip my bike for parts. A Park Tool pedal wrench and a ton of adrenaline were my only weapons.
It was pointless: All the camps I saw from days before had moved on. I didn’t see a soul. Well, I did meet one person—young man, also on the hunt for his own stolen bike (!). It was a white fixed gear bike, he said. I promised to keep an eye out. I returned to my shop at 10:30 p.m. deeply panicked. A phone call and text message chain later with a couple of friends helped me develop an action plan to get my bike back. I recalled a similar incident with a stolen cargo bike in Venice – my friend Layne Kagay, owner of CETMA Cargo, had one of his handmade cargo bikes stolen. Layne went bananas online, and in person, and has a considerable social network, and after a few days, the thief felt the heat and had a third party return the cargo bike.
The Good News
The good news: I got my bike back the very next day! Why was I able to get it back?
- I had several (many, actually) images of me and the bike.
- Second, my bike is very, very, unique in my community and I ride it absolutely everywhere – people identify me by my unique bicycle.
- Third, I own a small business and I’ve run hundreds and hundreds of free community events, rides, meetings, and rallies over the past 10 years. My social network and social media networks are sizeable and a lot of the people who know and follow me online live very close by.
- Fourth, I registered the bike online years ago with a detailed description, serial number, and photos on Bike Index and I used this to file a police report the day after the bike was stolen.
- Last, but not least, I hit the search for my bike hard and with every ounce of energy I could muster and would not stop spreading the word until something happened. On Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook the image I made was retweeted, and re-posted far and wide (from my kids' school PTA; to my friends from high school I haven’t seen in years; to a national professional bike mechanics association; to many local newsgroups and forums). In person, I got an old busted color printer working and printed a bunch of color images up; slept on the floor of my shop; woke up at the crack of dawn and posted the flyers all over the immediate neighborhood.
Every truck driver, house wife, school kid, friend, acquaintance, OG, hoodlum, abuelita, and random passerby quickly found out that “that bike guy” was looking for his (my) stolen bike.
As with Layne Kagay’s cargo bike, and so many other bikes, the theft was not done by an elite team of bike thieves from a spy thriller. The theft of my bike was a crime of opportunity and was done by a local person stealing from a neighbor – a very common scenario.
The next day, after filing a police report, I got a phone call from a local guy who said, “Hey man, I know where your bike is at. Meet me at your shop.” The local guy had gotten a call from some friends late last night, “Hey fool, we got this crazy bike over here. It’s real long like a wheel barrow. XXXXXX stumbled home with it drunk after that party at XXXXXX’s house. Fifty bucks.”
“Dog, I knew it was your bike," the local guy said. "Then I saw it blowing up on Instagram and I seen you with your kid on it all the time. So, I can help you get it back.”
“Cool man.” I ran to the cash register, pulled out $100 and slapped it in his hand. “Take me to my bike. I just want my bike.”
A half-mile away, across the Metro tracks, we rolled up to a faded green Craftsman house. The sound of the 110 freeway, the smell of dog poop warming up in the morning sun and dew on the bushes and packed dirt set the scene.
“I’ll be right back,” said the local guy.
And back he came: holding the rear end aloft, stumbling down the driveway.
“Hey, so, how do you drive this thing anyway?”
I popped the key in the rear wheel lock and took a quick look at the bike. I got my baby back. 18 hours of hell, but I got my bakfiets back.
I bought the local guy a BMX bike from one of my wholesale connections. He’d never had a new bike before in his adult life, he said, and his fixie had just been stolen a few days before.
My wife and a good friend had followed my Twitter trail and one of them snapped a photo. It’s silly. I look like a goof ball, but that is not me play-acting. I can’t afford another bakfiets, and this machine means more to me than literally every other possession I own. It is how I live my life, how I stay fit, and happy – and I got it back!
“So, you found it?”
“Hey, I heard you found your bike! Awesome!”
“How did you get it back?”
Since getting my bike back, the wave of news about its theft has traveled into the phones, computer screens, and minds of thousands of people. Friends have gotten in touch with me that I’d lost contact with. Strangers who’ve seen me ride by for years have stopped to chat and share their stolen bike story and listen to mine.
A week later, an LAPD cruiser passed by a restaurant I was having lunch in – and stopped to check the bike out! They had an APB in their car about my stolen (and returned!) bike. Word had gotten out. I thanked the officers profusely, showed them evidence I was the owner (their console had my Instagram image on it!), and even filled out a commendation form and mailed it in on their behalf.
I lost a lot of sleep, a month or two off my life due to stress, but I found out the key to getting your bike back isn’t about just registering it and filing a police report: it’s about fighting against the despair of loss; and having a social network that can come through for you the way you have for others.
About the author
Josef “Joe” Bray-Ali was born in Los Angeles and earned his B.A. from UCSB. He’s worked as an archaeologist with the National Park Service, a field representative for Assemblymember Rudy Bermudez, and as a project manager for a residential housing company. In 2008 Joe and his brother Adam opened the Flying Pigeon LA bike shop. Joe has run the shop single-handedly from 2009 onward – cleaning the floors, marketing, repairing bikes, bookkeeping, and chasing down loose ball bearings. The shop regularly hosts community events, bike rides, and community meetings. Best known for his work in bicycle advocacy and street safety campaigns like Figueroa For All, Bray-Ali is also the founder of the community bike repair collective, The Bike Oven, which began in his Highland Park garage in 2005. He has organized and led hundreds of free community bike tours to art galleries, parks, local breweries, restaurants, and dim sum parlors across the county. The middle son of a mixed-ethnicity couple, he and his wife, Susan, have a young daughter and live in Lincoln Heights. He can be spotted most weekday mornings riding his daughter to school on his bicycle.