How Bicycle Security Advocates is fighting bike theft

Yesterday we published startling statistics on how bike theft tripled between 2008 and 2015 in Seattle.  What caused this increase is not yet entirely clear. But one thing is clear: Thieves have little fear that they will be caught.

Rohin Dhar, the founder of the Priceonomics blog, wrote an excellent article a few years ago that helped explain why theft of bicycles is so much more prevalent than other thefts.  In the article, he posits that the reward-to-risk ratio is simply much greater for stealing bikes than other crimes.

The statistics back up Dhar’s hypothesis. A Montreal study found that only 2.4 percent of stolen bikes were recovered and returned to their owner. Other studies estimate that 5 percent of bikes are returned to their owners. Far fewer bike thieves are successfully caught and prosecuted.

To improve this terrible situation, we must take a three-pronged approach, which is reflected in Bicycle Security Advocates’s 2016 priorities:

  • Register more bikes.
  • Get more people to lock bikes securely.
  • Better coordinate efforts by police departments to investigate and recover bike thefts.

Register More Bikes

Unless a bike is registered, it will be nearly impossible to adequately report the crime to the police to search for your bike and return it to its owner.  Unfortunately, far too few people register their bikes on the free online registration systems Bike Index and Project 529. That’s why Bicycle Security Advocates supports creating systems to register all bikes sold and maintained at bike shops, pawn shops and bike swaps, and to register all bikes used in paid event rides.

Get More People to Lock Bikes Securely

Far too many people fail to lock their bike properly.  Over the next year, we hope to partner with local government, nonprofits, bike shops and lock companies to educate people on how to lock their bike through public education campaigns. Expect to see stickers on bike racks, spokecards on bikes, added training in bike classes, and raffles to get U-locks over the next year.

Better Policing

Most importantly, the Seattle Police Department must get better at addressing bike theft.

To eliminate inefficiencies, Bicycle Security Advocates is asking the Seattle City Council and Seattle Police Department to dedicate at least one police officer to receive all bike theft reports and coordinate bike theft investigations across the precincts and major crimes division.

Beyond coordinating the theft reporting and investigations, there are several opportunities with having a single officer as the point-of-contact.

In order to pursue recoveries and prosecutions of online theft, it’s critical to obtain subpoenas to issue to online sites like Craigslist and OfferUpNow to get user identification information of online sellers and buyers.  In Seattle, the assigned police officer to the bike theft has to write a memo to their commanding officer requesting the subpoena and the commanding officer has to then approve it.  But with hundreds of police officers responsible for individual bike thefts, no single police officer or their commanding officers are efficient and knowledgeable at dealing with online companies and requesting and approving subpoenas.  With a single police officer responsible for coordinating bike theft, getting a subpoena would become much more efficient.

In addition, little remains known about the bike theft economy.  The bike theft police officer could run a bait bike program to track how bikes are stolen, distributed, repackaged, and sold.  While bait bike programs have proven ineffective at successfully prosecuting thieves and reducing total bike theft, such an effort could help us answer significant questions, such as:  Who are the buyers and sellers? How sophisticated are the middlemen? How tied to the illicit drug economy is the bike theft economy?  How many bikes are sent to other cities in the region or across the country to be sold?  With a better understanding of the bike theft economy, we should be able to better address the problem.

The bike theft officer will also better track geographic and temporal trends in theft.  By knowing the complete picture of each theft across the city, they will intimately understand where bikes are getting stolen and sold.

Finally, the bike theft officer will have the time to build relationships with key people throughout the community. Someone who has deep ties to the bike community has a much higher probability of recovering a stolen bike than someone without any ties.  Similarly, a police officer who is on a first name basis with every bike and pawn shop owner and mechanic, every bike advocacy group, every downtown property manager, and transit agency staff is going to have a much higher success rate at finding stolen bikes than the average police officer.  Plus, the officer will be able to use these relationships to encourage more bike shops to register more bikes.


As we work to achieve our 2016 priorities, partnerships will be essential. Bicycle Security Advocates will seek to strengthen partnerships with the free online registration and reporting systems of Bike Index and Project 529, with the Seattle Police Department and the city’s Departments of Construction & Inspections and Transportation, and with bike shops and bike lock companies.

Along the way, we will need your support in explaining to city agencies and city council about the importance of address bike theft.  Signup to receive our monthly e-newsletter and occasional action alert here.


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