Cities across North America are promoting ecology and health through sustainable transportation. Integrated bike lanes and transit networks promote cycling as an inexpensive, fun, and active way to get around. Such infrastructure can help with congestion, bring more people to street level retail, and enliven a local community. The League of American Bicyclists shows a 51% growth in bicycle commuting from 2000 to 2016. All the investment in infrastructure is making a difference.
Yet the high incidence of bicycle theft challenges this trend. The experience of having a cycle stolen can be upsetting or costly enough to be a deterrent against riding: multiple studies show that around 7% of victims don’t replace their stolen bike and give up cycling all together.
Victims don’t always report bike theft, so it’s hard to get the full scope of the problem: an International Crime Victim Survey done in 2000 showed that only 56% of victims reported their bicycles as stolen. Cyclists often have the impression that bicycle theft is treated as an unimportant crime. There is some truth to this: even if a bicycle is a victim’s primary mode of transport, many are valued at less than $1000, so stealing them is not a felony. Cumulatively, however, the loss is staggering: estimates suggest bike theft generates half a billion dollars for thieves in North America every year.
The crime is so common that it also has the feeling of inevitability. A series of studies in Montreal show that half of active cyclists have been a victim of theft in their lifetimes, and that the more committed the cyclist, the more likely it is that they will have their ride stolen.
Cyclists do what they can to prevent bicycle theft. The Montreal study shows that properly locked bicycles—attached by U-lock to a secure bike rack—are generally not targeted in the short-term. However, if left for more than two hours, and especially if left exposed overnight, even a well locked bike can be targeted by a professional thief.
Theft negates some of the work cities do to promote healthy ridership. What can cities, police, and riders do to fight back?
Why bikes are theft targets
For professional and opportunistic thieves, bicycles represent easy, risk-free money.
Bikes fit into the “CRAVED” theft target profile described by criminologists to explain why some goods are more targeted than others. Desired objects are:
Concealable—a thief riding a bicycle is inconspicuous and moving quickly
Removable—especially when poorly locked
Available—increase in ridership means more bikes to steal (and more people to sell to)
Valuable—bikes can range in price from hundreds to thousands of dollars
Enjoyable—a quarter of bike theft is for joyriding
Disposable—selling stolen bikes is easy on Craigslist, person-to-person, and through fences.
A study in Portland, Oregon, one of the most bicycling-friendly cities in the country, showed that only 2% of reported bike thefts in 2014 ended in an arrest. The lack of serious consequences to bicycle thievery makes it seem a risk-free crime to many petty thieves.
In the Guardian newspaper, a reformed bike thief spoke to this ease. “There is a really slight chance of you getting caught when you are nicking bikes. You just crack it, get on it, gone.” He describes opportunistically stealing bikes to to support his drug addiction. He was not worried about selling them for full value, knowing full well that sometimes he would get only 1% of what the bicycle was worth.
Professional bike thieves, more organized and focused on expensive bicycles for more money, also see thieving as a low-risk activity. In Cycling Magazine, one burglar talks about his four years stealing high-end bicycles to fence. “At first it was a hit and miss game. Grab the bike and go kind of thing, but as time moved on and we worked out there was money to be made, we stepped up our approach. For example, if it wouldn’t sell for more than £200, it wouldn’t be taken.”
In both cases, the criminals were not deterred by the threat of prosecution as they believed it was unlikely. They both were active for many years since stolen bikes represented easy, risk-free money.
Policing a challenging task
It is not that police do not care about bicycle theft, it’s that it is very hard to track. Some jurisdictions have specialized bicycle squads working to protect cyclists and their property. Police on these squads are usually dedicated cyclists themselves and are frustrated that even recovered bicycles rarely get returned to their owners.
There are a few reasons these committed officers have a hard time. Bike theft is a stealth crime done quickly, and so it’s hard to catch someone in the act of stealing. Unlike other crimes, victims don’t usually know the criminals who targeted them, so it is harder to start an investigation. When bike thieves are caught, proof of ownership is a real issue. Oftentimes, bicycle owners do not have serial numbers recorded or receipts that prove ownership. If there is no proof that the bicycle is stolen, a thief can walk out of police custody with it in tow.
However, there are several policing approaches that are making a difference to the incidence of bike theft and the return when found.
529 Garage (Project 529 in Canada), is an organization started by a committed cyclist whose bike was stolen from what he thought was a secure location. Over the process of fighting to get his bicycle back, he decided that the loose coalition of groups who were fighting bicycle theft needed a larger vision. He created Garage 529 with a ten-year mission—to cut bike theft in North America by 50% in 2025.
529 Garage does this by registering bicycles in a North American database. Since high end bikes are often stolen and transported out of their original jurisdictions, having a national registry helps track movement. Further, 529 Garage has an app that allows immediate reporting of a theft and notifies other local riders to be on the lookout for a particular make and model.
In Vancouver, Canada in 2016, bicycle theft was reduced by 30% after widespread adoption of the program and 20,000 bicycle registrations in the city. Stolen bicycles are also finding their way home to their owners through the 529 Garage system.
Bait bike programs are another way of deterring theft in high crime areas. On campuses and in certain areas, bait bikes are left with RFID tags on them: when they begin to move, authorities are notified. Well publicized bait bike programs act as a deterrent for opportunistic crimes and can help capture those chronic offenders who do most crimes in an area.
The bait bike movement is being led by the police on the campus of the University of Madison, Wisconsin, who saw a 40% reduction in theft in the first year and doubled their arrest rate. This strategy is being adopted in cities from Colorado to Canada.
How can cyclists help police and recovery organizations?
A growing trend among riders whose bikes are stolen is to find the cycle on Craigslist and then either steal or buy it back. Although police understand the reasons why a rider might do this, they do warn against this style of vigilante reclamation, as it has in some cases led to violent outcomes. Calling an officer should be a rider’s first approach if they see their stolen bicycle.
Police suggest if a rider has a serial number it becomes much easier for their bike to be found and returned. One of the precautions a rider can take is to have a file with information about their bike containing pictures, serial number, and purchase receipts. If a cyclist finds their bike has been stolen they should report it immediately: at the very least, this will allow the police to deny a criminal’s claim that a bike is theirs legally.