Fewer bike-theft reports belies despairing reality that most victims don’t report to police
Cycle of gloom
SCOTT Atkinson’s heart sank when he stepped outside his home in Old St. Vital to find his garage door open.
“I instantly knew: it’s gone,” Atkinson said, describing the moment he realized his $1,300 Kona Splice bicycle was now in the hands of a thief.
On Tuesday, the 36-year-old joined countless other Winnipeg residents who have become victims of bike thieves in recent years.
Bikes are a common target because they are valuable, easy to transport and can be stripped down for parts or parts can be converted into weapons, police say.
In 2018, the Winnipeg Police Service received more than 2,000 stolen-bike reports. The number dropped to 1,555 last year, but a frustrated cycling advocate says the data is inaccurate and misleading.
“They only have reported stats, so I would take that with a pinch of salt,” said Mark Cohoe, executive director of Bike Winnipeg. “There’s a feeling of hopelessness out there that might be giving the police the false impression (that bike crime is declining).”
While Atkinson, who has lived in the neighbourhood for most of his life, is among those who reported his bike stolen, he knows he’ll probably never see it again.
At one time, Old St. Vital was relatively free of property crime, but now, anything that isn’t bolted down is likely to be stolen, he said.
“It’s so much more depressing than I thought it was going to be,” he said. “I don’t really have a way of doing anything or going anywhere, so that is kind of earth-shattering.… People that don’t really use a bike every day, they don’t really understand.”
Atkinson’s story is typical. Some people go through the motions of filing a police report hoping to see their property returned, but many don’t bother. The result is rampant, but largely unreported, theft, Cohoe said.
“There’s evidence that what we’re doing isn’t enough,” he said. “People have to feel like reporting it is going to have a result.”
In an effort to gather more data, Bike Winnipeg produced a public bike-theft survey this April.
About 300 cyclists responded. More than 90 per cent of participants had bikes stolen in the last five years, and the majority said the thefts happened at their homes.
The data disputes the notion that bike theft is a crime of opportunity that only happens to unsecured bikes in public spaces. If the city wants to reduce bike crime, it needs to commit to policy and infrastructure changes, Cohoe said.
A good first step would be updating Winnipeg’s bylaws to make it mandatory for new residential and commercial developments to include secure bike-storage areas. This would make it safer for cyclists to visit businesses, workplaces and residential buildings without fear of theft, he said.
The city could also expand its bike registry program by sharing its data with other municipalities, he added.
Since 1995, the city has collected bike serial numbers through its voluntary registry. When a bike is lost or stolen, WPS officers can reference the registry to track down its owner.
In 2018, the city introduced an online version of the registry. Currently, there are 17,000 registrations, said Adam Campbell, a city spokesperson.
Despite the fact that nearly half of the respondents in the Bike Winnipeg survey used the registry, only three per cent felt that it was helpful in solving theft.
Stolen bikes sometimes make their way to other municipalities, provinces or countries. Cohoe believes if the city were to join an international registry, it could make the data more useful.
Over the last three years, public interest in cycling in Winnipeg has surged, Cohoe said, adding the pandemic is partly responsible; many residents looked for new and healthy hobbies when various activities were restricted or shut down.
Other factors, such as rising gas prices and climate awareness, have made people more aware of the benefits of active transportation, he said.
That interest has led Winnipeg to the beginning stages of a cycling network.
“(The city is) certainly becoming more bike-friendly. We are building out infrastructure — I’m not going to say we’re doing it at a rate I appreciate, and I would certainly like to see us accelerate that — but we are seeing more,” he said.
In the early days, Winnipeg’s cycling infrastructure consisted of routes that travelled from “Point A to Point B.” The routes typically connected segments of individual neighbourhoods. Now, the city needs to fill gaps and connect the established routes, Cohoe said.
“When you create those connections, the gaps that you’re filling in have multiple destinations and multiple connections across that you’re completing,” he said.
A staff member at Bikes and Beyond in West Elmwood said she is pleased more people are becoming interested in cycling, but without secure storage, bike theft is inevitable.
“There’s this assumption that people who are stealing things are kind of dumb, and they are not,” said Emily, who asked that her last name not be published because she believes thieves use social media to target potential victims.
She advises cyclists to avoid storing their bikes outside in sheds or garages. She said the only way to ensure a bike’s safety is to keep it inside a home.
If someone has no choice but to leave their bike unattended, she recommends using two locks: a steel U-lock around the frame and a cable lock restricting the wheels.
She added that many thieves now use industrial tools including angle grinders, so even a double-locked bike is not entirely secure.
Anybody who has become a victim of bike theft should report it to police, she said.
“There is definitely a bit of discouragement in the public about the effectiveness of reporting,” she said. “(But) it is really important, regardless of whether people think it’s going to make a difference because, as we all know, decisions are made based on stats.”