*A better way to fight bike theft *
OFFICER Rob Brunt recalls the first time he walked into Vancouver Police Department’s (VPD) property office in 2015. Hundreds of seized bikes lined the floor and hung from rotating racks above his head, like clothing at a dry cleaner.
“Holy cow,” Brunt thought. “My whole career I’ve been seizing these bikes, and I find out… the department returns about two to four per cent of them.”
Brunt has worked for the VPD for more than 25 years. He spent most of that time as a deputy, patrolling the streets of Vancouver.
After learning how many stolen bikes were auctioned off, unable to be returned to their owners, Brunt focused his policing efforts on preventing bike theft. He designed and distributed posters to bike shops — instructing cyclists on how to properly lock a bike and encouraging them to use U-locks instead of cable locks. Then he looked into what other Canadian cities were doing to combat the problem.
“I look north, south, east, west — nobody’s doing nothing,” Brunt says.
Winnipeg statistics suggest we also have a big bike theft problem.
In Winnipeg in 2016, more than 2,500 bikes were reported stolen to police. That number is down four per cent from 2015. But theft reports soared 39 per cent from 2014 to 2016. Winnipeg police say they don’t keep track of the number of bikes returned to owners. But the city advertised more than 250 bikes for sale during its April 2017 bike auction.
In Vancouver, the number of bikes reported stolen fell 35 per cent from May 2016 to May 2017. Almost 800 fewer bikes were reported stolen in that time, even though the city is recording more bike usage on bike paths than in previous years. The return of stolen bikes to their owners also jumped from an average of four per cent to 10 per cent.
Brunt says the secret to the decline in bike theft has been the VPD’s partnership with Project 529.
Project 529 is a bike-theft prevention program that police departments, schools and cities can partner with. It uses an app, 529 Garage, as a bike registry. Users log their bike information — colour, make, model, serial number and bike nickname — then, when a user’s bike is stolen, they can send out an alert to other users in the city, telling them to keep their eyes peeled for the missing bike.
Police who partner with the project can run serial numbers through the software to find the owner of a seized or found bike, just like they can for a stolen car.
Using the app has helped the VPD get bikes back to their owners faster and more consistently. However, the creator of the app, J Allard, says it’s really just a tool and it’s the people who promote the app who make Project 529 a success.
Allard says leadership is essential to getting the project off the ground, but that’s what many cities are lacking.
“Problem No. 1 is nobody knows who’s in charge,” Allard says.
In Winnipeg, bike theft is handled by the evidence control unit, which deals with any stolen or found property in the city.
In Vancouver, Brunt heads up the initiative. His title is Project 529 liaison officer, and preventing bike theft is his full-time job. In other jurisdictions, such as Oregon, they’ve created a bike theft task force, dedicated to fighting the rising issue.
Allard says getting enough human resources to help run the program is a big challenge. Cyclists need to be convinced that registering their bike is worthwhile, and that takes lots of promotional efforts.
“If maintaining your bike properly is like brushing your teeth… I learned that even with a slick and simple-to-use app, registering your bike is like flossing your teeth,” Allard says.
Allard says a community has to strive and work to fix the problem for the project to succeed.
Signs of this community already exist in Winnipeg. Residents are sharing photos of missing and found bikes through social media. But again, there is no clear leader in the fight against bike theft.
Allard and Brunt say getting police involved is the first step to making the program a success.
The VPD focuses a lot of energy on community outreach. Brunt has been able to register more than 10,000 bikes in Vancouver over seven months through a handful of cycling and registration events. Each rider receives a 529 Garage sticker for free if they register at an event. Going into the community and making registration accessible and easy is a key element of the VPD’s approach.
Winnipeg police offer bike registration and a sticker for $6.50. To register a bike, you need to fill out a form and return it to the recreation services division’s building on Main Street.
After getting police involved, Brunt says, the next step is getting the cycling community on board. The best way he’s found to reach that community is through bike shops.
Some shops in Winnipeg have their own registration systems, but since they’re limited to the bikes bought or repaired at the stores, they don’t do much to help prevent citywide thefts.
“What would work even better than just a localized system… would be just a universal system throughout the city,” says Justin Debattista, who has worked at Woodcock Cycle Works for 2 ½ years.
Woodcock Cycle Works records serial numbers and uses stickers to help police verify ownership through the store.
“It’s a simple system, and it tends to work as long as the sticker isn’t removed,” Debattista says.
Because Project 529 is not active in Winnipeg, Debattista says a good lock is still the best investment to make for your bike.
Kit Muir is a senior journalism student in the Creative Communications program at Red River College in Winnipeg. This article was a product of a feature writing assignment.