Getting your bike stolen is angering and frustrating. But, as Harvard Graduate School of Design student Lulu Li discovered the hard way, it can also be a very lonely experience. Li developed the website Bikenapped in 2012 while enrolled in the M.Arch program at the GSD.

Bikenapped allows users to report stolen bikes, featuring a map that plots all the thefts so people can determine where the riskiest areas are. So far Bikenapped is serving the cities of San Francisco and Boston, where it’s getting enthusiastic feedback from cyclists relieved to share their stories. Since it launched, the online tool has been featured in and BostInno, as well as several bicycling-specific blogs and websites.

The Office for Sustainability spoke with Lulu Li to learn more about her motivations for creating Bikenapped.

OFS: What inspired you to create Bikenapped?

LI: Bikenapped came about from an urban design studio I took at the GSD. We were given free reign to pick up a topic of our interest and implement a project that attempted to address some urban issue. Bike thefts were first thing on my mind. 

My father bought me a bike when I was 10 years old. It was sort of too big for me at the time, but I rode that bike all the way until my freshman year in college, when it was stolen outside of the architecture school. It was a terrible experience since that bike had a lot of sentimental value to me. Then a few years later, when I came to Harvard for grad school, I bought another bike and 3 weeks later, the bike was stolen outside of my apartment. After filing police reports and speaking with law enforcement, I learned that currently there's little chance of recovering a stolen bike, and equally small chance of catching bike thieves. 

When I started talking to friends about it, I quickly realized that most everyone has had some sort of bike theft experience, or knew of a friend who had a bike stolen. Part of the issue is the lack of information about bike crimes and the severe underreporting. There is also a perception of the importance of bike thefts. If a car was stolen, it is taken very seriously. But even as bicycles are becoming primary modes of transportation for people, and costs of high end bikes can go up to $3000 (this is the highest value bike that's been reported on Bikenapped), people don't consider bikes to be of such importance.

The other thing I discovered, when you start talking about bike thefts, is that everyone wants to tell their own story about their experience. I realize that bike theft is a crime that most people go through silently. There seems to be nothing you could do and no one you can really talk to, which can be extremely frustrating. People seemed eager to have an opportunity to share their own stories. 

OFS: How do you envision most people using the app?

LI: The idea would be to make bike theft more visible and have lower barriers to reporting.  People can come tell their story and map their theft. They can contribute to the growing knowledge, as well as see that they aren't alone in their experiences. I also encourage people to not only report the theft online, but also to print out our poster, and post it on the physical location where their bike was stolen, so that other cyclists would see it and be informed.

OFS: Have you learned anything surprising from the process?

LI: The overwhelmingly positive response was really unexpected. The topic resonated with so many people. Bikenapped seemed to have touched a nerve. Also, I learned that cable locks are not very useful in preventing theft. I've seen people with $1000+ bikes with $20 cable locks. Get good locks!

OFS: What impacts do you hope will come from Bikenapped?

LI: I think raising awareness and building community is really important. We need to see what is going on in our neighborhoods. We need evidence of the effects and impacts of these crimes in order to have people take it more seriously on a policy level. As Boston is making a push to be a world-class cycling city, I think it’s important to consider these problems. 

OFS: Does the data you see leave you feeling more discouraged or more positive? Why?

LI: For me, it's encouraging to see people contribute their voices to the story. The more visible the issue, the more personal stories we hear, the more meaningful the conversations and change.

Visit Bikenapped