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Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Pedal...

There's nothing more wrenching than having a bike nabbed. It's almost like having a child kidnapped—or, er, a child you had padlocked to a metal bar while you went grocery shopping. Which is why this story in today's New York Times, about a pathological, industrial-strength bicycle thief who has terrorized the greens of Toronto—one of the most bike-friendly cities in North America—makes my blood run cold. Igor Kenk has made off with over 2800 bikes in the last several years. Granted, he's a bit of a nutjob:

The jumbled collection of bicycles suggests that Mr. Kenk is the unofficial world champion of bicycle thieves. But as he awaits trial next month on 58 charges related to theft and drug possession, the biggest mysteries of all are Mr. Kenk’s motives and his ultimate plan for the armada of steel, rubber and aluminum he amassed.

“He’s easily the most hated man in Toronto,” said Alex Jansen, a filmmaker who has been working on a documentary about Mr. Kenk for more than a year as part of a study of his rundown neighborhood’s transition to hipsterdom. “But I just found that it’s not as black and white as I originally thought.”

You don't say! Emerging details clarify somewhat the motives for Kenk's klepto-radicalism:

Ten landlords around the city reported that their garages had been rented by Mr. Kenk and were bulging with bicycles. As the police gathered the mounds of bikes, they also found cocaine, crack cocaine, about 15 pounds of marijuana and a stolen bronze sculpture of a centaur and a snake in battle.

Yes, of course—he would rather we all ride centaurs! Much as this happening seems the punchline of an avant-garde dramedy, bike crime is no laughing matter. Kenk's fantasia has disrupted the lives of thousands of would-be enviro-warriors, perhaps souring them on the two-wheeled lifestyle, even as they searched for options to vehicular transporation. In an age of $4-per-gallon gasoline, that seems particularly criminal. And, as if that weren't bad enough, proponents of expanded bike usage are now under attack in San Francisco. One pedestrian, Rob Anderson, is disputing the city's expansive study, which lists some 240 locations where cycling options could be introduced or improved.

The plan irked Mr. Anderson. Having not owned a car in 20 years, he says he has had several near misses with bikers roaring through crosswalks and red lights, and sees bicycles as dangerous and impractical for car-centric American cities. Mr. Anderson was also bugged by what he describes as the holier-than-thou attitude typified by Critical Mass, a monthly gathering of bikers who coast through the city, snarling traffic for hours. "The behavior of the bike people on city streets is always annoying," he says. "This 'Get out of my way, I'm not burning fossil fuels.' "

Black out the anti-enviro overtones to his complaint, and Anderson makes some decent points: 

Cars always will vastly outnumber bikes, he reasons, so allotting more street space to cyclists could cause more traffic jams, more idling and more pollution. Mr. Anderson says the city has been blinded by political correctness. It's an "attempt by the anti-car fanatics to screw up our traffic on behalf of the bicycle fantasy," he wrote in his blog this month.

City planning of the future is definitely going to have to take into account what would happen with more bikes on the road and a fairly steady density of cars. More than anything, safety is a concern (and I suspect incentivized carpooling and improved public transport will be in the mix). But congested streets could boost emissions, I suppose.

Still, there are dynamic strategies afoot—Washington, DC, has just implemented a bike-sharing program modeled after Paris's "Velib" program. Britt has blogged about it here before, with a good discussion of the pitfalls and promises. I'll say that the idea is a good one, for reasons practical and aesthetic. The initiative cuts down on the gnarl of bikes tethered to various posts and parking meters around the city—instead replacing them with an eye-catching array of gleaming (for now) red and white bikes lined up like a barber's pole. And DC's ample series of bike lanes make their usage a breeze. But the success of the programs (another is underway in Chicago) is really a question of scale. The Parisian bicycling system works wonderfully, principally because the bikes are ubiquitous—one can hardly turn a corner without seeing a stand of gray bikes calling voulez-vous? But in Washington, they're going up slowly, at a few intersections at a time. And of course, as I am already a bike owner, I won't be participating in the initiative.

And, for the record, DC slopes gently downhill toward the Capitol, leading to one obvious worry—will newfound bikers take one-way jaunts downhill, leaving a glut of bikes at the city center? You just can't win!

--Dayo Olopade