Losing it: The bike theft epidemic in Vancouver

Peddling crime
Make sure your bicycle stays yours

By Jacey Gibb, Distribution Manager

Two summers ago, Etsuko Jotaki was on her way home after meeting with a friend when she stopped to pick up her bicycle from Commercial-Broadway SkyTrain station. She’d left the bike locked and presumably secure, but when Jotaki went to retrieve it, one of the tires was missing.

“I was so shocked,” says Jotaki, who’s lived in Vancouver for four years. “To just have a part missing, that doesn’t happen in Japan. I was shocked.”

Unable to ride the bicycle home, Jotaki left it at the SkyTrain station overnight. When she returned the next day, the whole bicycle was gone this time—lock included.

While sad to hear about, stories like Jotaki’s have become somewhat the norm in Vancouver. If you haven’t had a bike stolen in the past, then you at least know someone who has. In a seeming parallel to the city’s goal of becoming a greener city with more bicycle-friendly infrastructure, the number of bike thefts has skyrocketed. A city where people are learning to embrace the biking lifestyle is a thieves’ paradise.


Getting sick and tire-d of this

Just how bad is the bike theft epidemic in our world-class city? Between 2011 and 2014, the number of bike thefts in Vancouver increased by nearly 50 per cent, going from 1,528 cases to 2,387 a year. According to the Vancouver Police Department’s website, during the summer months is when bike thefts are at their highest, with nine being stolen every day.

Back in 2010, there were more bikes reported stolen than motor vehicles, and that’s only taking into account the people who reported the incidents. Some people, Jotaki included, never file a police report because they’re skeptical of ever being reunited with their ride; they assume that once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.

Lucas Gallagher, co-owner of the East Van bike shop Sidesaddle, has been heavily involved in the Vancouver biking community for over a decade. Gallagher says that when you’ve been in the industry for as long as he as, you’ve heard every story of bike theft.

“Most stories are either ‘I had no idea I was at risk’ or ‘I didn’t think there was any way my bike would be stolen in this scenario.’ Never underestimate the risks.”

So what’s in store for your trusty two-wheeled steed after it’s been liberated from your care by a bike thief? Typically, one of two things: either the bike will be stripped for parts and sold separately, or the thief will try to sell it cheaply for a quick turnaround. Craigslist in particular is notoriously populated with expensive bikes being sold at inexpensive prices, and while the Vancouver police say they try to monitor the website for stolen property, it can be difficult. As well, thieves will post ads for bikes slightly different than the one they’ve stolen, in order to avoid owners who might be trying to track down their stolen property.


Wear the safety gear

When I ask Jotaki how she locked her bicycle up that night two summers ago, I cringe slightly. She’d put the lock around the frame of the bike, but not around the wheel. It’s obvious what happened, even without knowing much about Jotaki’s bike: her tire was a quick-release, which only takes seconds to detach from the bicycle. Seats are another common bike part with a quick-release lever, meaning they’re also easy to steal.

“Thieves will steal anything that isn’t bolted down,” explains Gallagher. “Wheels and saddles are commonly stolen if they are attached with a quick-release lever. Thieves can remove these parts without the need for tools, making it an easy theft of opportunity.

“Another important point is to not abandon a bike if it has a part stolen. Thieves will often steal a wheel or a seat so that the bike will be left overnight and they have a chance to return with tools to steal the entire bike.”

That scenario sounds familiar, doesn’t it? While no method or equipment is entirely failproof, there are many precautions you can take to help avoid being one of the 2,000 plus people who’ll have their bikes stolen this year.

The first step is to invest in a quality lock. Cable locks may seem secure, but they’re incredibly easy to break with tools, so do your research before buying one and maybe opt for a U-lock. “People often buy a bike and skimp on the lock, and this is exactly what not to do,” warns Gallagher. “A good, quality lock should cost between $80 and $100.”

The most obvious next step is to make sure you’re actually using the lock. It’s tempting to just leave your bicycle unlocked if you’re only going to be in a store for a moment, but a moment is all a bike thief needs. It’s also important to keep the bike locked even when it’s in storage, like in a garage or in your building’s bike room. Even just locking your frame and wheel together ensures a bike thief won’t simply hop on your bike and ride off into the crime-ridden sunset.

But having the most effective bike lock on the planet won’t be of much help if you lock your bike to the wrong thing. Bike racks are usually the best option, but make sure the rack is securely attached to the ground and hasn’t been tampered with. Increasingly bike thieves will loosen the bolts of bike racks, metal poles, and street signs so they appear secure, and when someone does lock their bike to one of these rigged structures, all a thief has to do is swoop in and lift the pole or rack off the ground. There’s even a handy-dandy nickname for a pole that’s been strategically loosened by a bike thief: a “sucker pole.” In this case, the sucker is you.


Peddling towards a brighter future

While a lot of what we’ve explored paints a dark future for bike owners in Vancouver, there are some sunny rays starting to pierce through those ominous clouds. Enter “Project 529,” a group that’s partnered with the city and Vancouver Police Department to create an online registry for bike owners. Once an account is created on the registry, known as 529 Garage, users can create a profile of their bike, including the model, serial number, manufacturer, and colour, as well as upload a photograph for any unique marks or distinguishing features. Best of all, the registry is 100 per cent free to use.

“Right now, bike registration is making a large impact on bike theft for the better,” says Gallagher. “[529 Garage] has had a good record of returning bikes to their owners.  If every bike was registered with this system, it would be much more difficult for bike thieves to get away with it.”

For me, the worst aspect of having a bike stolen would be the loss of joy. It wasn’t until I started using my bike as my primary method of transportation during spring and summer that I began to truly explore and appreciate Vancouver. Buses and SkyTrain cars can feel like mausoleums compared to two-wheeling it, and at the end of a night out, it sure beats texting to see when the next night bus comes.

What I’m trying to say is, yes, hearing about the ridiculous number of bike thefts happening in Vancouver and all the different ways in which people are trying to steal things that don’t belong to them is more than a little disheartening. However, try to remember why you decided to start biking in the first place: it’s convenient; it’s a great exercise; it helps reduce carbon emissions and urban congestion, and, perhaps most importantly, it’s a whole lot of fun. Plus, I really, really hate taking night buses.

The Other Press

The Other Press, Douglas College's student newspaper since 1976. Articles, insight and updates from the New West and Coquitlam campuses.

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  5. I know who stole Ms. Jotaki’s bike. Two groups did it. A French-looking person wearing Led Zeppelin live concert shirt, he has a mustache and wearing a shades at his young age and about 5’8″- 5’11” tall white male. Then I saw this guy gave money to another two people and pointing his fingers to the remaining bike. Seems like these two guys are drug addict heppies. Then they took the bike with bolt cutter and put at the back of a black ford pick up truck BC plate. I was walking to the sky train at that time when I saw them stealing the bike.

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