Whenever spring rolls around in New England, the number of people reporting the theft of their bikes rises. This may be due to increased ridership. Mild weather encourages the use of bicycles and also appears to attract thieves who often see bicycles as easy targets and a good way to make a quick buck.
Unlike cars, which are often stolen for their parts, bicycles are usually stolen in one location to be sold another. Since bicycles are more difficult to trace than cars, serious bike thieves can sell a bike through an online auction site or by using a “for sale” advertisement.
Expensive bikes are sometimes taken to states far from where they were stolen to reduce the odds of the owner recognizing the bike prior to the sale. This is why it is so difficult to recover a stolen bike and why stealing bikes is more attractive to some thieves than other forms of theft.
With the odds stacked against bicycles being recovered after a theft, leaving a thief unpunished, new approaches must be taken to prevent bicycle theft in the first place. To this end, some police departments have begun to look at technology as a way to reduce the number of thefts.
One example of this trend can be seen in a recent move by the Aspen, Colorado police department; they launched a “bait-bike” program to combat a serious problem with bicycle theft. Prior to starting the program, at least 33 bikes had been stolen between May and July of this year, following a 30 percent increase in bicycle thefts seen between 2011 and 2012.
By using a GPS enabled bait-bike, police are able to track the location of the stolen bike in real time. This allows them to zero in on the bike thief and make an arrest.
The Aspen program was modeled on a similar program started at the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. There, the police realized that despite having received 100 reports of stolen bikes, bike theft was an under reported crime.
In spite of the number of thefts reported, they were only able to arrest one person for stealing a bike. After the bike-bait program was instituted, they were able to catch thieves in the act, increasing their success at finding out who was responsible for the high number of thefts.
What made their efforts more interesting was that they decided to distribute pamphlets about the program and stickers saying “this could be a bait bike” to make thieves think twice before taking a bike. Not only were they educating the student body, faculty and staff, but they were putting the thieves on notice that random bikes were rigged and choosing the wrong bike would mean inevitable arrest. This approach is certainly a huge advantage for cyclists.
So far, programs of this type are few and far between. If such programs were more widespread, it might encourage people to invest in bikes and bicycling. It would also make cycling a more attractive option for transportation since the odds of having one’s bike stolen would be lower.
This is one of those things that bicycle advocates don’t always remember to include in proposals about how to improve bicycle accommodations. Sure, asking for a place to park bikes is great. But, not considering the odds of coming out to where a bike was locked only to find it missing is indicative of missing the big picture.
For some it can mean the loss of their main form of transportation. And replacing a bike quickly isn’t always possible. Financial difficulties or lack of time to shop for a new bike can leave cyclists scrambling to change their mode of transportation.
Widespread use of high tech theft deterrent programs aimed at bicycle thieves would help to make cycling more mainstream. Implementing such programs would send a strong message to thieves and non-thieves alike about the role of bicycles as valuable and necessary vehicles, as opposed to recreational devices.
The technology necessary to make bait-bike programs a reality is readily available. GPS devices are everywhere. And they have become small and simple to use. Hopefully, more police departments will decide to use modern policing methods to reduce all forms of vehicle theft so that losing one’s transportation to a greedy stranger will eventually become a thing of the past.