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What Happens to Chicago's Abandoned Bicycles?

By Tanveer Ali | January 28, 2015 7:12am
 Kathleen Murphy, the city's bicycle parking manager, attaches a notice of removal Monday to a bike that appears to have been abandoned on Bryn Mawr Avenue in Edgewater.
Kathleen Murphy, the city's bicycle parking manager, attaches a notice of removal Monday to a bike that appears to have been abandoned on Bryn Mawr Avenue in Edgewater.
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DNAinfo/Benjamin Woodard

EDGEWATER — The red-framed road bike attached to a sign pole outside Janet Kournetas' home on Granville Avenue hasn't budged in months.

These abandoned bicycles are a common site throughout Chicago's neighborhoods — with rusted chains and missing parts — and the city removes more than 350 of them each year.

"I don't know. Why would that happen?" said 72-year-old Kournetas, standing in her building's foyer and looking at the bike on Granville, its handlebars missing. "Maybe some lad was partying and left it behind."

In the last two years, the city received 514 complaints through its 311 hotline about abandoned bicycles, according to data obtained by DNAinfo Chicago through a Freedom of Information Act request.

In 2014, the city removed 359 of them from the public way, said Pete Scales, a city Transportation Department spokesman.

Scales said when a complaint is received from 311, a ward office or a new city website, a city worker goes to the site of the bicycle to check for telltale signs of abandonment: rust, wear and the lack of key parts, such as wheels, seats and handlebars.

"What you would think an abandoned bike looks like," Scales said.

Sometimes, all that remains is a frame, the metal carcass apparently picked clean by vulturous bike thieves.

If the signs are there, a notice is zip-tied to the bicycle — or what's left of it — warning of its removal seven days later, in accordance with a city ordinance.

Tanveer Ali and Ben Woodard discuss why they dug into this story:

According to the city's 311 data, about 275 of the 514 abandoned bikes flagged in the last two years weren't found when the city came around to inspect, while another 50 were found on private property.

The city issues about 1,000 abandoned bike notices a year, and many bicycle owners respond, Scales said.

On Monday, the city's bicycle parking program manager, Kathleen Murphy, attached a few notices to suspected abandoned bicycles on Bryn Mawr Avenue in Edgewater.

"This one," Murphy said, patting the exposed springs of the bicycle's seat, "I don't think anyone's used it in a long time."

If the bikes aren't moved by the date on the notice, a city crew will come with bolt cutters and free them. Then, they are all given to Working Bikes, a nonprofit organization that fixes damaged bikes and donates them to citizens of developing countries — such as Guatemala, Nicaragua, Uganda and Sierra Leone — who are in need of a reliable form of transportation.

North Park resident Robert Kastigar said he reported what appeared to be an abandoned bike outside his apartment a couple years ago.

"It was locked there for quite a long while, yet nothing had been removed from it, nothing was stolen," said the 73-year-old bicyclist. "It was really odd."

Kastigar said he ignored it for a while before complaining, then he forgot about the bicycle altogether until one day he noticed it was gone.

"I had no idea where it went," he said.

Marie Ackerman, Working Bikes' communications director, said some of the hundred of abandoned bikes it receives are donated to Chicagoans in need.

She said the abandoned bicycles come in varying stages of disrepair — and some are scrapped right away.

"It’s a little bit of an imperfect process because usually they have to be sitting there for a while before you know they’re abandoned," she said.

But why are so many bicycles in Chicago abandoned in the first place?

Resident Janet Kournetas, 72, said a bicycle on Granville Avenue had been locked to a pole outside her apartment for months. (DNAinfo/Benjamin Woodard)

Bicycle and data fanatic Andrew Bedno has been paying attention.

In fact, he built a website, called "Lonely Locked Bits of Bike," to track abandoned bicycles throughout the city.

The site allows anyone to email a photo of a suspected neglected bicycle to LLBB@massup.us, and his technology uses the photo's metadata to automatically map it.

He said the "standard speculation" about why a bicycle is abandoned is its owner being "too drunk" to remember where he or she locked it up. Kournetas, the resident on Granville, offered the same hypothesis.

But an abrupt life change could also be to blame — as well as college students moving away after graduation, Bedno said.

He also said some of the abandoned bicycles, which he calls "orphans," are found at the city's regional transportation hubs.

"They end up around Union Station a lot," he said, "like someone locked up a bike there and got on a train and went to a new city — and never came back."

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