A DIY approach to catch a bike thief

by Raymond Parker on February 23, 2012

in Cycling, Video

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Today we jump from government snooping to citizen sleuths, with a look at a Vancouver-based initiative, To Catch a Bike Thief.

By way of introduction, allow me to tell a little story:

Years ago, in Vancouver, I was driving my van eastward on West 4th Avenue, when I saw a woman outside a convenience store screaming “Stop, thief!”

At the same time I noticed a man on a bicycle pedalling furiously north, on MacDonald. I made a left turn, passing the woman now calling from the roadside, “He stole my bike!”

The man swerved right, onto 3rd Avenue. I followed, tires screeching around the bend.

As I gained on the robber, barely a couple of metres separating us, he launched himself from the moving bike, towards the sidewalk. I watched as he slid facedown on the concrete. I guess the adrenaline was pumping, because he sprang up, dove over a garden fence, and disappeared alongside the house towards Broadway.

Moments later, a throng of angry people surrounded me, threatening citizen’s arrest and worse. I was, they assumed with good reason, the thief’s accomplice, about to throw the booty in my van. It took some time, and accounting of my cycling credentials, to convince them I was Bicycle Good Guy.

To Catch a Bike Thief trailer

I’ve also found myself the victim of bike thieves, including several close-calls.

The same kind of devastating loss has inspired a group of Vancouver cyclists to create a web series called “To Catch a Bike Thief,” chronicling their adventures as they attempt to recover home-made GPS-tracked bait bikes.

Intercept leader Broderick Albright and the team began experimenting with GPS tracking technologies for bicycles in early 2011, completing their first bait bike in June 2011.

The GPS tracker in the bait bike is activated once the lock is cut. The tracker then broadcasts its location to a mapping server accessed through a web-application. A “dispatcher” communicates with the team in the field via two‐way radios.

“GPS tracking gives our intercept team dispatch real-time response of the bait bike [allowing them] to develop a proper intercept strategy that is both safe and effective,” explains Ingo Lou, producer of To Catch a Bike Thief.

A location near Vancouver Public Library with clear views of potential getaway routes was chosen for the first stakeout.

“There’s a lot of adrenaline, as well as a lot of frustration, waiting around for a tiny bit of action,” Lou told me in an interview by phone.

“We had about a dozen people, not including the two Concord Security guys, on our first stakeout,” says Lou. They settled in, discussing strategy. The security detail isn’t there to make arrests, but to observe, report and deter any potential violent behaviour.

At the end of it all, as dawn broke over the pseudo-colosseum architecture of the library, “absolutely nothing had happened.”

“We’re figuring this out for the first time ourselves, Lou told me, “and we’re sharing our adventure with you as a viewer.”

“We’re not doing a law enforcement show—good guy versus bad guy—we recognize that bike theft exists and now it comes down to how can cyclists protect themselves?”

Lou says there are three types of bike thieves: “There’s a kind of bike thief who will trade for money or goods; there’s the kind of bike thief who we’ll call opportunistic—the joy rider, if you will—and the third kind is the most sadistic, with an “employer” who says we need this kind of bike and they will literally go out and look for a certain model of Cervello and make it disappear.”

Statistics don’t represent the true size of the problem because so many victims don’t report their loss. “A lot of people say the cops aren’t doing enough,” Lou laments, “but if cyclists don’t report theft ….”

Six years ago, Victoria police launched the first bait bike program in North America. Within six months, the number of bike thefts in the city dropped 19 per cent. The bait bike was part of a larger Protect Your Bike campaign, designed to hobble thieves (sometimes seen feeding on spoils in Beacon Hill Park) responsible for $500,000 worth of stolen equipment a year.

According to Victoria Police Media Spokesperson Cst. Michael Russell, the Protect Your Bike program is still in operation, but the kind of community-wide blitz we saw in 2006, accompanied by media coverage and cards and stickers in local bike shops seems to have withered away to a self-help information booth at VPD.

As for the bait bike program, it’s missing in action. “I think the last one we did was in 2009,” Russell told me via e-mail, “where two people were caught, but Crown refused to go ahead with the charges.”

Bike theft, meanwhile, continues unabated. Perhaps To Catch a Bike Thief will film a few episodes in the Capital.

The pilot episode, part of a fundraising campaign to further the production (with insurance costs as a major part of the expenses) is planned to release in April 2012.

Have you had a run-in with bike thieves? How do you protect your bike? Tell us your story in the comments below.

To Catch a Bike Thief | Related: Who cares about bike theft?

{ 4 comments… read them below or add your spin! }

Conor Ahern February 23, 2012 at 4:04 am

I have had bikes stolen in my time. But this to mind an incident I heard about in New York many moons ago. The bike owner caught the would be thief in the process of attempting to unlock and make off with his beloved bike. The bike was locked with a Kryptonite U lock and so the owner decided to teach the miscreant a lesson by locking him to a pole, this was achieved by putting the lock around his neck and fixing him firmly to the pole. Upon completion of his task the bike owner quickly left the scene and left to the fire dept. to extricate the thief from his predicament.


Ryan February 26, 2012 at 4:33 am

I’ve been fortunate so far that none of my bikes have been stolen, however my Dad’s bike was stolen while he was at work about 6 years ago, and we had a bike stolen from our yard 11 years ago (before I even cared or knew how to ride a bike).

As for what I do to protect my bike? Well, when at home my bikes are almost ALWAYS inside the house. When I leave them outside for whatever reason they are locked.

I never go into a store and leave my bike unlocked, unless I’m with someone else who will watch my bike. Even if I’m going to be a few seconds I take the time to lock it up.

At the mall nearest to me, I’ve talked to quite a few people who told me their bikes have been stolen there. Some admitted they didn’t lock their bikes up mind you. I haven’t had any issues here (yet).

I’ll be heading to the library branch downtown today, and in the past I’ve also talked to a few people at the libraries bike racks who told me their bikes were stolen from there.
When downtown I usually double lock my bike. My regular chain lock and then the u-lock I carry with me.

I am quite paranoid about my bike being stolen…As much as I love my bikes, I have quite a few baskets, carriers, bags etc. that I would hate to lose.


Raymond Parker February 27, 2012 at 6:58 pm

Conor, we all have our revenge fantasies. That sounds about the appropriate “sentence.”

All one has to do is Google “bike theft” and look at the pictures to see a lot of people make the mistake of locking just a wheel in place.

Component and accessory theft is another big issue and I’m not sure what the answer is unless you have caged or some other kind of secured parking.


Conor Ahern February 28, 2012 at 12:52 pm

Here is a true story about bike related theft.

When my brother was doing a round he world trip, in the late eighties, his Kryptonite lock was stolen and the bike was left where it was. This happened in Egypt if memory serves me right.

No word of a lie!!!


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