Stolen bike recovery climbing thanks to online registry

· The Pulse

Bike Index, the non-profit bike registry that makes it easier to reunite cyclists with their stolen bikes, appears to be more popular in Edmonton than anywhere else in Canada.

The U.S.-based website allows people to register their bikes for free by inputting a serial number, description, pictures, and contact information. It has been particularly embraced in the Edmonton region, with more than 50 retailers, police services, and cycling organizations listed on the site as partners.

"There are a small handful of distinct people that are solely responsible for us being in Alberta," Bike Index co-founder Bryan Hance said, pointing to the people behind the Stolen Bikes Edmonton and Stolen Bikes Calgary Facebook groups as the first to push bike owners to use the platform. Following their lead, dozens of partners have come on board, including the Edmonton Police Service (EPS) in 2019.

EPS averages about 3,500 bike-theft reports per year, said Const. Kenny McKinnon. Prior to partnering with Bike Index, 50 to 100 bikes were recovered each year, he estimated. Since the registration system was integrated into EPS operations, nearly 100,000 people have registered their bikes in Edmonton, and recoveries have steadily risen: 123 in 2019, 307 in 2020, and more than 600 in 2021. (These figures don't include unregistered bikes that were recovered or bikes returned without police involvement.)

McKinnon said that when he first proposed that EPS develop a bike registry of its own, the service didn't share his sense of urgency.

"When I chatted with them, they said, 'Yeah, we might be able to take a look at it within the next couple years,'" McKinnon remembered. "I was like, well, this is a problem right now."

McKinnon and Det. Dana Gehring began researching the idea. They looked first to other jurisdictions like Vancouver, the bike theft capital of Canada, which had noteworthy success with the Project 529 registry program. But then they realized several local shops were already using Bike Index.

A Bike Index registration sticker on the seat tube of a green bike

When you buy a bicycle in Edmonton, chances are you'll be encouraged to register it with Bike Index, a registration system that has reunited hundreds of people with their stolen bikes. (Brett McKay)

"For us, it was an obvious choice because we weren't really going against the grain and trying to get a bunch of stores to start a different program," McKinnon said.

Hance observed that this is often the case: The cycling community is looking for accessible solutions to the problem and is early to get on board with the registration software, then law enforcement joins in when officers notice how effective it can be. Having been developed by members of the cycling community, and with continuous feedback from users, Bike Index's software is often better suited for the job than systems individual police agencies have implemented, Hance said.

"We've looked at a bunch of these police systems, and they're all 30 years old. They're all terrible. They don't support pictures. We get bikes back all the time just from photographs with no serial number just because it's so highly unique."

The non-profit is operated by a core group of about six people and is funded mostly by donations from people who have had their bikes returned, with some corporate partners offering donation-matching. Another portion of its revenue comes from the paid partnerships such as the one Bike Index has with EPS. He said those deals reflect the additional costs associated with the influx of users.

Because Bike Index doesn't require special equipment, anyone can report a stolen bike or search for one on its website. McKinnon said more bikes are being found and returned before ever ending up in the Edmonton police property unit. Last year, 967 bikes were turned over to Edmonton police, down from 1,577 in 2018.