The city of Seattle doesn’t produce bona fide heroes all that often. But when it does, they’re truly exceptional.
From the little old lady who refused to move as new development engulfed her longtime home to a (now disbanded) troop of crime-battling costumed vigilantes lead by the inimitable Phoenix Jones, Seattle-borne heroes — super, folk or otherwise — are noted for their courage and unbreakable resolve. They’re a touch eccentric, a wee bit pugnacious and they most certainly do not suffer fools.
Now, a new hero has emerged from the drizzle with a singular mission: to rescue pilfered bicycles and return them to their rightful owners.
Despite being a car-centric burg with some truly challenging topography, Seattle has long maintained a vibrant and dedicated cycling community. It’s home to the nation’s largest bicycle organization and one hell of a multi-use bike commuter trail: the 27-mile Burke Gilman trail. (The city’s newly minted nonprofit bike-sharing program, however, isn't doing so hot). With so many bikes on Seattle streets there is, of course, a sad yet predicable downside: rampant bicycle theft.
As reported by the Seattle Times, the number of bike theft-related incidents reported to the Seattle Police Department last year was 1,561 — that’s double the number of swiped wheels in 2010. And these figures don’t even take into consideration bikes lifted during burglaries. While the fact there are simply more bikes out there than just a few years ago to be stolen has something to do with the swift uptick in theft, so does the unfortunate return of heroin to the city. "Because it’s a hot button, because people are speaking up about it, we’re directing attention to it," SPD detective Scotty Bach tells the Times of bike theft and its relationship to the heroin epidemic.
Hot button or not, the SPD simply doesn't have the resources to track down every bike that's swiped. This is where a daring Seattleite known only as “Bike Repo Batman,” or, simply, “Bike Batman” swoops in to save the day.
Little is known about this enigmatic do-gooder aside from the fact that he’s a married engineer and cyclist in his 30s. He stands at an imposing 6-foot-4 and unlike some of his fellow vigilantes who take their superhero moonlighting very seriously, Bike Batman doesn’t wear a disguise. He’s even shared a photo of his sunglasses-clad face with the Guardian, with whom he spoke but under the condition of anonymity.
Bike Batman’s crime-fighting methods are straightforward. He regularly peruses Bike Index, a nonprofit website that functions as one part bike registration site, one part stolen bike registry geared to help reunite victims of bike theft with lifted Schwinns and Fujis. To date, the site has aided in the recovery of 2,912 stolen bikes.
At the same time, Bike Batman scours Craigslist and similar sites for “suspicious” listings. If a bike listed for sale in a posting resembles a bike reported on Bike Index as having been stolen, Bike Bat cross-references the two listings to make sure the photos of the pilfered bike and the up-for-sale bike are a match. If they are, Bike Batman contacts the owner through Bike Index to verify that the bike for sale does indeed rightfully belong to them.
Essentially, Bike Batman, acting as a sort of neo-Jessica Fletcher for Generation Fixie, does all the investigative legwork for Bike Index users. Remember that these are strangers, many of them likely in a state of mourning or outrage over the loss of their beloved bikes. Bike Batman is not for-hire and he can’t be summoned by the SPD via secret signal in the sky once a lock is cut and a Cannondale Bad Boy disappears into the night. There is no fire engine red rotary phone.
And Bike Batman doesn’t just locate stolen bikes. He does what many victims of bicycle theft might be scared to do themselves: He confronts thieves and demands that they return the stolen property. Once a purloined bike has been positively ID’d, Bike Batman, posing as an interested buyer, contacts the seller and arranges to meet up in person. At this point, he tips off police so that they're involved with the sting. In his early days of pro bono bike repossessing, however, Bike Batman worked alone.
“My heart was pounding,” he tells the Guardian of his first recovery mission. “I had no idea what I was doing.”
More of a sleuth than a full-on vigilante, Bike Batman no doubt thrives on the thrill involved with tracking down bad guys and putting himself in potentially dicey situations. But at heart, he's just a good Samaritan wanting to uphold the reputation of his home. In fact, the first several recovery missions involved visiting cyclists who he didn’t want to leave with a sullied opinion of the Emerald City. “… it felt really good to stand up and say this town is not that bad," he says.
“It feels really good to be able to reunite people with their bikes,” Bike Batman explains. “There are people that it means so much to. This hunk of steel and paint is worth much more than the price tag.”
As for the 22 beneficiaries of Bike Batman’s heroic deeds, they couldn’t be more grateful. “It was so cool. My heart was just beating so happily,” 65-year-old Douglas Brick tells the Guardian. “This guy is the real deal.”
But seriously, where was Bike Batman when Pee-wee was in his darkest hour?
To some, being contacted by a stranger offering no-strings-attached bike recovery services might seem a little odd. Who would volunteer to do that? But many Bike Index users in Seattle know the drill when they're contacted, seemingly out of the blue, by a fellow citizen who would like to offer his assistance.
"I'm not out fighting crime and punching people," he explains to the Guardian. "I'm telling people: this is not yours."
Roughly half of Bike Batman's rescue missions have resulted in arrests.
This all said, Seattleites who have fallen victim to bike theft shouldn’t wait around for Bike Batman to swoop in. That ‘s part of his mystique — you never know if and when he’ll appear. As for those who decide to perform bike recovery reconnaissance on their own and ultimately do succeed in tracking down their stolen bikes, the SPD recommends that you contact them before attempting to recover it.
“The more eyes the better. If you find something that you believe is stolen, give us a call. That way we can close out a case or work to get it back to the person who owns it — and make sure it’s done safely,” says SPD detective Patrick Michaud.
As mentioned, Bike Batman appears to operate without a partner although though he does (wisely) call in the SPD before meeting face-to-face with suspected bike thieves. However, if he ever does go looking to recruit a "Bike Robin" with a similar interest in car-free living, I think I know just the guy:
Via [The Guardian], [Seattle Times]