Thefts rose 26 percent on MBTA in 2011

Bicycles, smartphones were leading targets

At the Downtown Crossing Orange Line platform yesterday, Officer Nick Morrissey of the Transit Police warned Luis Tejeda about the rise in theft of smartphones.
At the Downtown Crossing Orange Line platform yesterday, Officer Nick Morrissey of the Transit Police warned Luis Tejeda about the rise in theft of smartphones.(BILL GREENE/GLOBE STAFF)

A rash of smartphone, bicycle, and catalytic-converter thefts spurred a 26 percent increase in property crimes targeting MBTA passengers last year, far outpacing growth in ridership, Transit Police reported yesterday.

Thieves are swiping visible and valuable iPhones from riders' hands, stealing bicycles locked to flimsy posts and fences, and surgically removing expensive catalytic converters from beneath cars parked in MBTA lots. That drove larcenies, which make up the bulk of property crimes, to their highest total since 2001.

After an average of 571 larcenies a year from 2005 to 2010, the total swelled to 771 last year. Although that still meant just over two a day, the increase troubled officials because it came despite a campaign urging T users to be mindful of their valuables.


Transit Police Chief Paul MacMillan attributed the increase partly to near-record crowding on the T. "When you have an increase in ridership, you have an increase in opportunities for these things to occur,'' MacMillan said, adding that ridership growth has brought passengers closer together and made it easier for thieves, especially with more riders flashing attractive smartphones.

Final 2011 ridership statistics are not expected until next week, but through November, the T was on pace to challenge a modern record and exceed 385 million passenger-trips for the year.

But pickpocketing, smartphone stealing, and other theft appeared to grow much faster than ridership, despite a campaign that includes recorded announcements, posters, and uniformed as well as undercover Transit Police officers reminding riders to be cautious, especially while waiting on platforms or riding near subway car doors.

Thieves were particularly intent on taking iPhones, which are roughly 30 percent of the smartphone market but accounted for about 60 percent of smartphone thefts on the T.

"What we see is a lot of 'grab and runs' where they take the phone out of [victims'] hands and run as soon as the doors close,'' MacMillan said, with most phones never recovered.


Walter Flores of Dorchester said he learned firsthand to conceal his phone after watching other riders have theirs stolen.

"I just keep it in my pocket," said Flores, a 20-year-old Roxbury Community College student riding the Red Line yesterday.

Britney Hickson, a freshman at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School, said she sometimes uses her phone and her iPod on the T but always puts them away if she sees someone staring at them.

Bike thefts rose to 199 last year, double the 2007 figure and more than triple the number in 2003. That reflects the growing popularity of cycling and the addition of bicycle lanes and paths in Boston and surrounding communities, which has brought cyclists to the T faster than it can add bike parking, MacMillan said. More riders have been locking bicycles to posts and fences, making them easy targets for theft.

"This is a good news-bad news story,'' he said. "We encourage people to take their bikes to stations, but unfortunately we've exceeded our capacity to properly secure those bikes.''

Nearly all stations now have bike racks, and two, Alewife and Forest Hills, have video-monitored bike cages, rooms for locking bikes that are accessible only to registered riders with specially coded CharlieCards.

Three more of those "Pedal & Park'' rooms are under construction at South Station, Braintree, and Oak Grove, with others planned at Malden, Davis, and Ashmont stations, said Joe Pesaturo, MBTA spokesman.


But the T's projected $161 million deficit for the coming year, which prompted a recent set of proposals to raise fares and cut service, and the $5.2 billion plus interest it owes in debt have constrained investments in stations and other infrastructure.

The same is true of the ability to monitor the unstaffed "honor lots'' found throughout the commuter rail system, where riders leave their cars for the day and pay by stuffing money into slots or via credit card and cellphone.

Lots on the South Shore in particular have been plagued by catalytic converter thefts, part of a national trend driven by the increasing value of platinum and other precious metals found in the converters.

Thefts from cars - not to be confused with thefts of cars, which numbered 22 last year, one-quarter the total a decade ago - hit 238 last year, the most in eight years. And nearly half of those were catalytic converters stolen from beneath cars, boosting a category that once consisted largely of smash-and-grab theft of navigation devices and valuables locked inside cars.

MacMillan said Transit Police are working with municipal forces in Halifax, Kingston, Weymouth, Hanson, Lakeville, and other targeted lots to track these crimes, with an eye to catching thieves in the act and tracking resale of converters.

While patrols are increasing, only Lakeville's commuter rail lot has the kind of security cameras commonplace on the rapid-transit system, MacMillan said.

Among transit stations, busy South Station continued to have the most serious crimes, even though the tally there dropped from 74 to 62. Forest Hills rose from fourth to second, and Downtown Crossing climbed from seventh to third.


Statistics from peer agencies were not readily available yesterday, but the T often compares favorably. The Washington Metro Area Transit Authority, which runs a bus and subway system in the District of Columbia that carries slightly more passengers than the MBTA, recorded 2,276 serious crimes in 2010, more than double the T that year.

Globe correspondent Allison Knothe contributed to this report. Eric Moskowitz can be reached at