‘Bike theft is not inevitable’: Vancouver rolls out a cycle crime revolution

Bike theft is the scourge of cyclists around the world, with riders, manufacturers and the law struggling to coordinate a response. That was until city cop Rob Brunt and Xbox pioneer J Allard devised Project 529

The bicycle was nothing impressive an ageing mountain bike worth only a couple of hundred dollars but Vancouver police officer Rob Brunt remembers it clearly. The owner, clad head-to-toe in cheap green waterproofs, on her way to work at the market on Granville Island, stopped Brunt to express worry about her bike. It was locked to a nearby rack, behind a car park and out of sight of passersby a perfect place for thieves. It was her primary mode of transport and she couldnt afford to lose it.

The next time Brunt saw the woman, she was crestfallen. The bike had indeed been stolen, forcing her to miss a few days of work and get around on a borrowed ride. She was scraping together the money for a new lock.

The womans story stuck with Brunt. I learned from that the price of a bike is not indicative of the value to the owner, he says.

That was two years ago. Today, a remarkable turnaround has taken place on Granville Island, which was at the time the worst spot in Canadas worst city for bike theft. Since then, bike thefts have declined by more than 70%, an incredible improvement in a problem that is pervasive in nearly every major city in the world. Similar reductions across Vancouver are offering hope that something can be done to combat a phenomenon that stymies the growth of bike culture.

And the turnaround might never had happened if somebody hadnt stolen J Allards bike.

Theft hotspot Granville Island was the worst spot in Canadas worst city for bike theft. Photograph: Martin Child/Getty

Allard has become a bit of a folk hero in Vancouvers cycle community for his tireless work to stop theft but he doesnt even live in the city. He makes his home across the US border in Seattle, where hes a giant in the tech industry a former Microsoft executive who led the team that invented the Xbox. He was adjusting to life in Seattle after a high-profile departure from Microsoft several years ago when he woke one morning to find his beloved mountain bike gone.

The experience rattled him. Not only did he feel victimised, he was bothered by the lacklustre police response. He started to look into why bike theft had come to seem like a problem without a solution, accepted by so many as an unavoidable part of urban life.

Allard found a litany of barriers that have prevented meaningful action against bike theft: police are often burdened with other priorities, while stolen bikes can be sold online with impunity. The fragmented bike industry hasnt agreed on a standardised serial number, and riders themselves dont always properly lock their bikes. Allard says he couldnt find a single person in North America working full-time to stop bike theft.

I just couldnt accept the answers to the questions I was asking after my bike was stolen, he says over a beer at a Vancouver pub. I reject the notion that getting a bike stolen is just part of riding a bike.

But bike theft is rampant in cities all over the world. In London, about 20,000 bikes are reported stolen every year; 72 went missing from Milton Keyes station alone last year. Theft costs Portland $2m (1.5m) a year, and thats just the bikes which are reported stolen. A 2015 report by the Netherlands Central Bureau of Statistics stated that the 630,000 thefts reported to police constituted only about 30% of the total that went missing.

J Allard with Microsoft chairman Bill Gates in 2007. Photograph: Ted S Warren/AP

Allard decided to do something about it. What emerged was Project 529, an ambitious scheme aimed at stopping bike theft. The first phase was a global app-based database of bikes geared to riders and police forces, intended to both discourage theft and aid the return of recovered bikes. While online databases have existed for years, none had truly caught on with North Americans, nor was there one shared by police forces across state or international borders.

He quickly learned, however, that the problem went much deeper than encouraging riders to register bikes. A turning point came when he was introduced to Brunt, the veteran Vancouver beat cop who was working on bike theft after being posted to light duty following an injury.

Brunt gave Allard a new perspective on the problem, and access to a police force that was willing to try something new. Allard gave Brunt tech-industry ambition and almost limitless energy to combat the problem.

Together, the pair have turned Vancouver into a test case for a more comprehensive approach to stopping bike theft. They have personally visited every bike shop in Vancouver to discuss the problem, and to encourage owners to register each bike they sell (Allard personally upgraded the sales software for some shops himself to make that easier). Theyve visited community centres and set up booths at festivals to educate people and invite them to register. At Granville Island, which receives 10 million visits a year, Allard and Brunt worked with owners to relocate bike racks to safer locations, organised bike lock loans to customers, and plastered the Project 529 logo on as many bikes as they could to deter would-be thieves.

A bike without its rear wheel and seat in Ottawa. Photograph: Photawa/Getty Images

I dont know if anybody else could do this but J, Brunt says. Hes so smart and so good at so many things that its unbelievable. Hes always presenting different perspectives and analysing things in different ways. He just thinks differently.

Across Vancouver, the number of bike thefts fell 20% in the first year the pair worked together. The next year, they fell another 30%. On Granville Island in June 2015, before the project started, 33 bikes were stolen. In June 2017, that number had fallen to seven.

Their work is getting noticed. Laura Jane of Vancouver bike-advocacy organisation Hub Cycling says theft was so bad in the city that she heard of people who had given up riding out of fear of their rides being pilfered. Shes been heartened by the turnaround, which she credits to Allards work and renewed focus by the Vancouver police.

Cycling needs to be convenient, and there will always be some risk of theft, but whats encouraging is they have demonstrated some very clear steps in reducing bike thefts, Jane says. This shows that theft is not inevitable in a bike-friendly city.

Project 529 team members on Granville Island, including J Allard, right, and Rob Brunt, front. Photograph: Dominic Schaefer Photography

Still, Allards business is hardly a runaway success. He has funded it so far using proceeds earned from the sale of his vacation home. Without more city police forces on board, and more cash registration to 529 Garage is free, but he also sells upgrades the projects future is uncertain.

For everything else, we have the magic formula, but not the money side of it, Brunt says. J is doing this out of his own pocket. Hes spent thousands of his own dollars here, and hes not even Canadian. Thats kind of heartbreaking to me.

Like any good tech-industry big-thinker, Allard has plowed ahead so far without much thought to funding. If I had a business plan, I wouldnt be here, he says with a laugh. He acknowledges that Project 529 isnt as scalable as he might like, but he hopes Vancouvers results will inspire more cities to take an interest.

Hes already signed up police forces in some commuter towns around Vancouver and is looking for more, but is eyeing something bigger: Seattle, a city where a bike is stolen every hour, on average. If Allard can inspire his hometown police force to take the problem as seriously as Vancouver does, he thinks he can put a dent in the cross-border sales that fuel bike thefts in both cities.

Do I want to cut bike theft by 50%? Yes, of course, but that may not be achievable, he says. But we can made a difference.

As for that young woman at Granville Island, Brunt remembers her story for another reason. After first meeting her, he and Allard convinced her to register her bike on the 529 Garage app. She did so, and uploaded some photos of herself in her green waterproofs alongside the bike. Eventually, her bike appeared on Craigslist, and with the help of the police and the information in the app, it was recovered and returned to her. Its a story with a happy ending.

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