Let’s vaccinate bikes

As bike theft continues to rise to incredible new heights in Seattle, we need to take more aggressive measures to curb the problem.  It’s time to vaccinate bikes.

Bike theft is the fastest growing larceny crime in Seattle.  Based our analysis of police incident reports, bike theft has climbed from 467 in 2008 to more than 1,481 in 2015 (these numbers do not include reported thefts to the University of Washington Police Department).

That’s approximately $7.2 million worth of reported stolen bikes so far.*  What’s worse, national crime statistics show that for every one bike reported as stolen, another five go unreported, which means as much as $43 million worth of bikes could have been stolen in the last nine years in Seattle, with the number getting bigger every year.

Bike theft is so prevalent for a simple reason: there’s a low chance of a thief getting caught.  Stealing a bike takes 30 seconds, the bike is its own getaway vehicle, and reselling is easy through online sites like OfferUp, Craigslist, and eBay where bikes don’t have to be authenticated as being owned by the seller.  And even if a thief is caught, the penalty for stealing a bike worth less than $500 is just a misdemeanor, and often prosecutors don’t see the value in pursuing higher value cases.

What’s even worse, even if the police find a stolen bike, they might not be able to return the bike to the owner because there’s no record of ownership.  The King County Sheriff’s Office reports that of 44 bikes they recovered in the last couple years, only 19 were returned to the owners, 12 of which were because they were listed on Bike Index — 63% of successful returns were due to Bike Index.**

That’s why indexing your bikes on Bike Index and Project 529 is so important.  If you ever get it stolen, the best chance of finding it and getting it returned to you is if you have it listed online.  It’s the only way that police departments, bike shops, pawn shops, and passionate community members can check a suspect bike to see if it’s listed as stolen and be able to return it.

But to increase the odds a thief will get caught, we need a lot more bikes to get registered.  There simply aren’t enough bikes indexed.  Bike Index has nearly 120,000 bikes listed, and Project 529 claims a database of 400,000 bikes in North America. But there are an estimated 500,000 bikes in Seattle alone.***

While there are several key steps that could be taken to increase a thief’s risk — including increasing police resources to investigate bike theft, more public education on better locking techniques, and better bike parking options — indexing a critical mass of bikes is essential.  Unless the police can successfully check nearly all suspect bikes against a database of known stolen bikes, thieves will continue to have a low risk of getting caught.

Graphic explaining herd immunity by the National Institute of Health

Herd Immunity

We need to take a cue from public health profession: herd immunity.  Herd immunity is the concept that a “threshold proportion of immune individuals … should lead to a decline in incidence of infection.” (“Heard Immunity: A Rough Guide,” Clinical Infectious Diseases 2011;52(7):911–916).  Similar to vaccinating against a disease in order to protect against polio, chicken pox, or mumps, we can index bikes against theft.

Like an annual flu shot doesn’t mean you won’t come in contact with the seasonal influenza virus, indexing your bike doesn’t mean you won’t come in contact with a thief or even have your bike stolen.  But also like how the flu shot helps your body respond to the virus, if indexing your bike will mean you have a better chance of bouncing back from a theft and the overall number of thieves and thefts will be greatly reduced.

With a sufficient number of bikes indexed, we can make this happen.  A common population threshold to achieve herd immunity for diseases is about 85 percent.  That’s a good target to set for indexing bikes, too.

How to achieve an 85% adoption rate

What’s essential is to reduce as many barriers to indexing bikes as possible and to indexing bikes at as many opportunities as possible.  Here’s our four-prong strategy, each built on a foundation of voluntary indexing by individual bike owners:

  1. Require bike retailers to pre-index their bikes and transfer ownership at sale.
  2. Require online sites that facilitate buying & selling of bikes to provide a field for listing a bike’s serial number or index ID code.
  3. Require paid event rides to provide the opportunity for participants to index their bikes as part of event registration.
  4. Run annual public education campaigns to encourage voluntary bike vaccination.

Why not mandate all bike owners register their bikes?

Mandating individual bike owners register their bikes with the city does not and will not work.

  • The evasion rate would be extremely high. With some 500,000 bikes in Seattle, it’d be nearly impossible from an administrative standpoint to catalogue and manage this database and then to enforce the law on everyone.
  • The data would be highly inaccurate.  People frequently change the components and look of their bike.  The profile of a bike needs to be regularly updated as a bicycle owner works on it.
  • Cost. Even with registration fees, cities with mandatory registration have found that the revenues don’t cover the costs.  Plus, fees will discourage people from actually registering their bikes, and potentially from even owning and riding a bike. Adding a fee would add a barrier to registration, not eliminate one.
  • Racial Profiling. Police officers have been known to use the checking of registration status as a pretext for racially profiling people.
  • People Who Live Elsewhere. Doesn’t address people who live elsewhere and bike into the city.
  • Bike theft is regional, not city-specific.  A city-run database of registered bikes is inadequate. We need databases like Bike Index and Project 529 that cross all political boundaries (and many technical boundaries), in order to list and recover bikes.  A city-run or even state-run database won’t work.

For these reasons, Bicycle Security Advocates absolutely does not support mandating individual registration.  (more information about why mandatory bike registration doesn’t work, go here and here)

Instead, we must build upon a foundation that is fundamentally voluntary at the individual ownership level; is premised on the regional, even international, scale of bike theft; and is principally aimed to breakdown barriers and increase opportunities to indexing.

1. Require bike retailers to pre-index bikes.

We can’t index the 500,000 bikes in Seattle overnight, but we can ensure all new bikes get indexed.

With as much as $48 million in bike thefts since 2008 in Seattle, it’s in bike retailers’ self-interest to address this problem.  While some theft victims might turn-around and buy a new bike, studies show that many victims who will buy a bike of lesser value or even never buy another bike again.  Moreover, the bikes stolen and resold are direct competition to the bike retailers selling legit bikes through their shops.  The seven bike shops that have closed their doors in the last few years are proof enough of the impact thefts have on the industry.

Today, all bike shops in Seattle support indexing bikes on Bike Index or Project 529, and most encourage their customers to voluntarily do it.  These shops may put up a sticker or sign at the cash register, sell a Project 529 registration sticker set, or even talk to a new buyer about indexing.  But still very few buyers who actually index their new bikes. While more marketing and public education might help, it won’t get close to a 85 percent adoption rate.

By having bike retailers pre-index bikes prior to sale, we completely eliminate the barrier of indexing bikes for the new bike owner.  We don’t have to run a marketing campaign.  We don’t have to train every single new bike owner about how to find the serial number, take photos, and fill-out the description. The bike just comes indexed at the sale — a 100% adoption rate.

Luckily, this is easy to implement.  All shops have a database of their inventory, and every Seattle bike shop we’ve talked to already records the serial number and buyer’s contact information for every bike they sell.  We just need to adjust their recording systems slightly to also quickly index sold bikes onto Bike Index or Project 529, which should not be a big hurdle.

Four Seattle bike shops already automatically indexes their bikes on Bike Index.  These bike shops use the Lightspeed point-of-sale system, which has a built in integration into Bike Index.

With a one-year timeframe to implement the requirement and city funding to provide technical assistance and training bike shops, we can get every bike retailer in Seattle indexing bikes.

Requiring every bike retailer to index bikes is critical.  It wouldn’t be fair to small bike shops who operate on razor thin margins who voluntarily indexed bikes, while big retailers like Costco and Target avoided indexing bikes.  Out of fairness, all retailers would need to comply.

2. Require Craigslist & OfferUp to provide a field for listing serial numbers.

While Craigslist, OfferUp, and eBay don’t have their own product inventory for sale, they still facilitate thousands of bike sales — too many of which are of stolen bikes.  If we are to require bike retailers to take proactive steps to index bikes, we need to make sure these sites do their part, too.

In order to create a healthier online marketplace, we need to encourage buyers and sellers to use Bike Index and Project 529 to verify a bike is legally owned by the buyer.  We can do this simply by requiring the online sites to:

  • Provide a field for sellers to list a bike’s serial number (or the Bike Index ID code),
  • Have a link next to the field to an informational webpage for the seller on how to index a bike, and
  • Have a webpage for the buyer on best practices for ensuring a bike isn’t stolen.

While there will always be thieves who type in the wrong serial number, by providing more information to buyers on how to buy legit bikes, we can reduce the number of stolen bikes sold through online marketplaces.

3. Require major paid event rides to provide a serial number field during event registration.

Beyond breaking down barriers to indexing bikes, we also need to increase the number of opportunities for people to voluntarily list their bikes on Bike Index and Project 529.

Seattle is home to some of the nation’s largest paid event rides. The Seattle-to-Portland Classic (STP), Ride to Vancouver & Party (RSVP), Chilly Hilly, Emerald City Ride, and Obliteride all start in Seattle and have a combined participation of nearly 30,000 people.

Simply providing a bike serial number field and an informational page link would introduce tens of thousands of people to indexing bikes.

4. Run annual public education campaigns for bike vaccination.

Every year before winter, public health departments across the country run public education campaigns to encourage people to get a flu shot against the seasonal virus strain.  We should do something similar for bikes.

Like the flu, bike theft is seasonal.  When people start biking in greater numbers in May, thefts start to increase, hitting their peak in September.

Ideas for a public education campaign to encourage indexing/vaccinating bikes include:

  • SDOT-funded stickers on public bike racks,
  • Signs posted by property managers in employer bike rooms,
  • Spokecards put in wheels of bikes locked at bike racks,
  • Targeted Facebook ads,
  • Ads on the Seattle Bike Blog,
  • Fliers distributed through bike shops,
  • Informational fliers and on-spot indexing at city-staffed info booths at community events, and
  • Providing information as part of registering for Cascade’s Bike Month Challenge.

Next Steps

Will we reach an 85% adoption rate of people indexing their bikes if we do all four steps robustly and will we significantly reduce bike theft in the city?  That’s hard to know at the outset, but with bike theft continuing to balloon out of control in Seattle, these are four solid steps that bike retailers, event ride producers, and the City of Seattle can take together.

These four steps will need to occur in tandem with other steps, as well, including (1) improving SPD’s bike theft investigations with more resources, dedicated staffing, and better intradepartmental coordination; and (2) providing sufficient resources for Bike Index and Project 529 to host their databases online and continue to improve the service.

Bicycle Security Advocates will be working with the Seattle City Council, bike retailers, SPD, and others over the next few months to make these solutions a reality.

If you have ideas or comments about any of these proposals, please email Brock Howell at brock@bicyclesecurityadvocates.org.


* Estimate based on average value of reported stolen bikes to the Bellevue Police Department, November 2009 to June 2017, multiplied against the total number of bikes reported stolen to the Seattle Police Department, January 2008 to June 2017.

** Numbers provided by King County Sheriff’s Office during its presentation as part of the Bike Theft Panel Discussion, held by Bicycle Security Advocates on May 16, 2017 at Metier Racing in Seattle.

*** According to surveys, 50 to 71 percent of Seattleites say they own or have access to a bike, depending on the survey, and obviously some people have more than one bike, and some people own more than one bike.  With more than 700,000 residents in Seattle, we estimate there could be around 500,000 bikes in the city.


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *