As long as there are people willing to buy stolen bikes, there are people willing to supply them. While we can all do things to help protect us as individual riders, and our bikes, it doesn’t really go to the source of the problem. Many local jurisdictions have come up with some great and creative programs to try and stem the supply. But as long as bike theft is a relatively safe activity (as far as illegal, slimy activities go) it will continue to run rampant.
This is actually part of what was driving my recent post about bicycle licensing. Sure, the original article was written somewhat tongue-in-cheek (something that the folks over on reddit seemed to have missed.) It is easy to argue for bike licensing as an anti-theft activity, because, well, bike licensing ain’t ever gonna happen™. But it drives to a real, different way of thinking about bike theft.
The problem with voluntary, individual bike registration is that is is an inherently self-serving function. It will increase the odds of me, personally, recovering my bicycle if it gets stolen. But it doesn’t fundamentally change the actual stolen bike market because, well, people are lazy. They forget, put it off, will do it next week…. then they simply never register.
Back when I was running the bike shop, I reached out to the a representative from SafeBikes, a San Francisco bicycle registry run in cooperation with the San Francisco Police Department. I wanted to set up a kiosk or other system so that, whenever anyone bought a bike from our shop, we automatically walked them through the registration process (or did it for them.) In my mind, this increased the effectiveness of the registration process as a theft deterrent, and was providing excellent customer service at the same time.
To my complete surprise, they discouraged this idea. Their comment to me was that I should encourage the person to do it themselves. Forget, put it off, do it next week… lather, rinse, repeat.
We also sold used, refurbished bikes in our shop as a way to offer lower-cost models to folks that just needed a way to pedal across the city – or didn’t want to invest a lot of money into something that could be stolen while locked up at work. This inevitably lead to people rolling in bikes asking if we wanted to buy them. We had a policy – never buy a bike from someone that brings it into the store. The risk was just too great. But this also underscores another frustration: there was no way that we, as shop owners, could easily find out if a bike had been stolen. That bike registry that didn’t want us to register bikes for our customers also didn’t have a way for me to query it. I know there are privacy concerns here, but a simply yes/no telling me if a given serial number belonged to a bike that had been reported stolen would have been of huge value to us. Instead, the only option I had was to call the police, give them the serial number, and wait for someone to get back to me.
Bike thievery is essentially a risk-free crime. If you were a criminal, that might just strike your fancy. If Goldman Sachs didn’t have more profitable market inefficencies to exploit, they might be out there arbitraging stolen bikes.
— “What happens to stolen bicycles?” blog.priceonomics.com
There are people out there that legitimately sell used bikes – often quite cheap. But the fact that it is soooo incredibly easy to steal a bike, and soooo ridiculously difficult to find out if a given bike has been reported stolen, it throws a wet blanket over the used bike market. So we’re de-incentivizing legitimate used bike sales, while not discouraging the illicit stolen bike market. Something is seriously wrong here.
So while I was definitely being facetious in my advocating for bicycle licensing, it would in fact have a tangible impact on bike theft. It would impact the market for stolen bicycles and increase the risk. While bike thieves are assholes, most of them operate under rational principles. If we can increase the risk bike thieves face, then the cost/benefit ratio changes and people stop stealing bikes as much.
So what was really behind that article was a desire for access to centralized, shared bicycle ownership records. And I’m afraid that asking people to do it on their own ain’t ever gonna happen™. I understand, there are a ton of technical, privacy and logistical problems with such a system. But we live in a world with loads of really smart people solving some really hard problems. Sure seems like we should be able to do better than we currently are.
Note: I know that someone is going to read this, watch the video of the bike being stolen above, and think “Well, they should have used a better bike lock.” First off – almost all bike locks are way to easy to defeat. Second, expecting people to carry 3 different locks, each of which weigh about as much as the bike itself, everywhere they go isn’t really a solution either. Finally – stop blaming the victims.