A bicycle locked to a pole near my house was untouched through the fall and winter. When spring came, I balanced the lock so it would be in a different position if the bike were moved. It wasn't. Eventually I broke the lock and now ride the bike almost daily. Was it ethical to steal something that had clearly been abandoned by its owner?
KATE CLIFFORD, PHILADELPHIA
It's not that it was ethical to "steal" it; you didn't steal it. You claimed abandoned property, and no reason not to.
The trick is determining if something is in fact abandoned. There are an awful lot of cars stashed by the curb with nobody near them. To your credit, you show due diligence. You observed the bike for nearly a year and used a cunning spy-movie trick to see if it had been ridden when you weren't around. And all city dwellers know that bikes are sometimes leashed to poles and left to fend for themselves. What's more, you did you neighbors a service by removing what had been a nuisance.
Here in New York, the police respond similarly to complaints about an abandonedd bike. In some precints, according to Noah Budnick of Transportation Alternatives, "if the bike is damaged or shows signs of obvious disuse, the police will tag it with a notice saing that the bike will be removed in two weeks if it is not moved. After two weeks, the officers return usually with Department of Sanitation agents, and if the bike is unmoved, they clip the lock and cart the bike away." In this, they and you act ethically.