David Pyle is a public school teacher who lives in Pilsen, works on the west side, and has biked all over town for years without a problem. Until last Wednesday, when his bike was snatched from a heavily policed corner of Columbus Drive, apparently by the city.
"I know it sounds strange, but the city took my bike while I was watching the Radiohead concert in Grant Park," says Pyle. "I'm not alone. I know of two others who had their bikes taken, because I was with them that night. Probably a lot of people lost their bikes that night."
According to Pyle, he rode his bike to the August 1 concert because he wanted to avoid traffic and because "I just love riding my bike. I ride it everywhere--it's my main form of transportation." He says he had no reason to think the city would discourage bike riding. For one thing, Radiohead attracts a younger crowd, some of whom would be expected to ride bikes. For another, he thought he was doing the city a favor by keeping a car out of the heavily congested Loop. And besides, city officials have been making a big deal of their efforts to make Chicago more accessible to cyclists--Mayor Daley brags about his love for riding, and the Department of Transportation spews out press releases each time a new bike lane gets painted.
"When I got to Grant Park for the concert I could see I wasn't alone," says Pyle. "A lot of people had come by bike." He recalls seeing bikes locked to parking meters and street signs. "I locked my bike to one of those crowd-control barriers. You know the type--they look like bike racks. They're about 12 feet long and 4 feet high, and they had them all along Columbus to keep people from walking into the street. There wasn't any sign saying, 'Don't park your bike--bikes will be removed.' There were other bikes locked to the barriers. There were police all around. No one told me, 'Don't lock your bike there.' I locked my bike and went to the concert."
About three hours later he returned to find that his bicycle--a Fuji mountain bike--was gone. "It had vanished," he says, "along with the lock."
Pyle soon met Edita Malakauskaite and Todd Schoonover, two other concertgoers whose bikes were missing. "Edita was a wreck--she was sobbing," says Schoonover. "It was pretty upsetting."
Schoonover says he looked for someone who might have information. "I went to the emergency medical van that was parked there. I said, 'Hey guys, did you see what happened to the bikes?' They were incredulous. They said, 'You won't believe this, man, but the city clipped the locks and left the bikes in the street!' After that I was in a panic. I ran to some police officers who were gathered in the middle of Columbus. Ironically, they were on their bikes. I asked them, and they said they had no idea."
Schoonover and Pyle got on their cell phones. "We called the district police dispatcher and Streets and San," says Schoonover, "but no one knew a thing."
Finally they found a sympathetic police commander. "He said they had received information from Streets and Sanitation that the bikes had been turned over to concert security," says Schoonover, "so I ran back to the south entrance of the park to find out if the bikes were there. I talked to a person whose name was Campbell. She was very nice, but she couldn't help. She said she had been at her post all day and at no time had any bikes been turned over there."
By then almost an hour had passed since the end of the concert, and they were getting conflicting pieces of information. "At one point someone told us that the locks had been cut and the bikes turned over to their owners," says Schoonover. "I said, 'That's impossible. We are the owners--and we don't have our bikes!' I'm thinking, 'This is crazy. Were they just unlocking the bikes and giving them to whoever claimed them?'"
With no fresh leads they went home--one by cab, two by public transportation. The next day they continued their search by phone, trying to find a helpful soul in the City Hall bureaucracy. "I called Streets and San again and wound up talking to a fellow named Phil, who said he was the person who gave the OK to cut the bike locks," says Schoonover. "He told me that they had only cut three locks that night and that two bikes had been claimed and one had been turned over to the city. He didn't know what they had done with that bike. He was very matter-of-fact about it. I asked, was it their policy to just turn bikes back to whoever was there to take them? He said, 'We have no policy toward bikes. We don't tow bikes, we tow cars. Bikes we consider unnecessary inventory, and we don't deal with those.' That was basically the end of our conversation. I knew I wasn't going to get too much help from him.
"Oh, he did turn me over to the Park District. I wound up talking to a secretary named Julie. She was very receptive. But she knew nothing, and there was nothing she could do."
Schoonover stewed about the bizarre and often contradictory information he'd received from various police and city officials. "One Streets and San guy told me that it's illegal to lock your bike to any city property," he says. "How can that be? If that's the case, where can you lock your bike? They can use that rule to justify taking any bike, because just about everything you would want to lock your bike to is city property, even those bike racks on the sidewalk. Is it now illegal to lock your bike to a parking meter? To a sign? I thought this city was supposed to be friendly to bike riders.
"I think I could handle this better if my bike had been stolen by your regular run-of-the-mill bike thief. At least I would understand that. That's what thieves do--they steal bikes. But this feeling that the city used its power of eminent domain over these bikes--just clip the locks and haul them away or leave them for anyone to steal--is a lot harder to take."
One person who saw what happened to some of the bikes is Paul Wertheimer, a crowd-management consultant who runs a Web site called www.crowdsafe.com. "I still can't get over it," he says. "I was walking on Columbus near Balbo, and all of a sudden this yellow Streets and Sanitation truck comes up and two guys get out. One of them has this four-foot lock cutter. They went up to the bikes that were locked to the barricades and cut the locks off. It was just snip, and off went the locks. So much for protection. These were nice bikes too. Some of them could have cost 1,000 bucks. They just threw the bikes into the back of the truck like it was no big deal.
"I walked up to them and I said, 'What are you doing? Where is someone going to find their bike?' There was a silence, like this was a question they hadn't assumed they would be asked. One of them mumbles, 'Maybe they can look for it at the police pound.' Then they took off. The interesting thing is they took the locks as well as the bikes. I mean, your normal bike thief in Lincoln Park or wherever couldn't care less about the locks."
The trucks went south on Columbus, says Wertheimer. "They must have taken, I don't know, six bikes. There was only one lock they had trouble busting. It took them so much time to cut through it that the guy whose bike it was came running up. I guess he saw them struggling with his lock. They just let him take his bike, and on they went. Obviously this was their assignment. I guess the order came down from on top: 'Take those bikes!' I don't know--sometimes the city is just so incredibly arrogant. They could have posted signs on those barricades saying, 'Don't lock your bike here.' Or they could have left a sign that says, 'Your bike is at Buckingham Fountain,' or wherever. There's a million things they could have done, but they didn't care. They just hauled the bikes away."
City officials say workers were only following orders--in this case, police orders. "The police asked us to remove the barricades so they would not be impeding the flow of pedestrian traffic," says Ray Padvoiskis, a spokesman for the Department of Streets and Sanitation. "With the great rush of people coming out of the concert, they wanted people to be able to walk down Columbus. It's basic pedestrian control. But we couldn't remove the barricades without unlocking the bikes."
According to Padvoiskis, who talked to the guy who oversaw the operation, only three bikes were removed and all of them were returned to their owners. "All the owners got their bikes back, right there on the site," he says. "We clipped the locks and put the bikes on the back of the truck. There was no intention of [permanently] taking them away. The three owners were close to the bikes, and when they saw their bikes taken they ran to the truck. And the guys in the truck gave them their bikes. So it was no problem."
How are people generally supposed to get bikes that have been towed away by Streets and Sanitation work crews?
"We have arrangements," says Padvoiskis. "We'd expect people to call 311 and inquire. There was never any intent to hold these things hostage."
Schoonover and Pyle remain skeptical of the city's account, if only because they and Malakauskaite still don't have their bikes. "I don't know what they're talking about," says Pyle. "We've called all over the city, and no one knows what happened to our bikes. If they only clipped three bikes, where's my bike? Where's Edita's bike? Where's Todd's? Where are all the bikes [Wertheimer] saw in that truck? Where are all the other bikes I saw locked to the barricades? There were more than three. And how do they know they actually turned the bikes over to their real owners? What--they just gave the bike to the first guy who claimed them? That's preposterous.
"I think there's a more logical explanation. I think they just clipped the locks and left the bikes or took them to only God knows where. On Sunday I'm going to go down to Maxwell Street. I wouldn't be surprised if that's where I find my bike."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.