‘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 answer. That was until city policeman 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 recollects it clearly. The owned, clothed head-to-toe in cheap green waterproof, on her route 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 couldn’t afford to lose it.

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

The woman’s tale stuck with Brunt.” I learned from that the price of a motorcycle 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 place in Canada’s worst city for motorcycle steal. Since then, bike thefts have declined by more than 70%, an incredible the process of improving a number of problems 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 hadn’t stolen J Allard’s bike.

Theft hotspot … Granville Island was the worst spot in Canada’s worst city for bike steal. Photo: Martin Child/ Getty

Allard has become a bit of a folk hero in Vancouver’s cycle community for his tireless work to stop theft- but he doesn’t even live in the city. He makes his home across the US border in Seattle, where he’s 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 answer. He started to look into why motorcycle steal had come to seem like a number of problems without a answer, agreed to by so many as an unavoidable part of urban life.

Allard discovered a litany of roadblocks that have prevented meaningful action against bike stealing: police are oftens burdened with other priorities, while stolen motorcycles can be sold online with impunity. The fragmented motorcycle industry hasn’t agreed on a standardised serial number, and riders themselves don’t always properly lock their bikes. Allard says he couldn’t find a single person in Northern america running full-time to stop bike stealing.

” I simply couldn’t accept the answers to the questions I was asking after my motorcycle 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. Stealing costs Portland$ 2m( PS1. 5m) a year, and that’s 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 merely about 30% of the total that went missing.

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

Allard decided to do something about it. What emerged was Project 529, an ambitious strategy aimed at stopping bike stealing. The first stage was a global app-based database of bikes geared to riders and police forces, intended to both deter theft and aid the return of recovered motorcycles. 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 promptly learned, however, that the problem went much deeper than encouraging riders to register motorcycles. 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 obligation following an injury.

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

Together, the pair have turned Vancouver into a test case for a more comprehensive approach to stopping motorcycle stealing. They have personally visited every bike shop in Vancouver to discuss the problem, and to promote owners to register each motorcycle they sell( Allard personally upgraded the sales software for some stores himself to build that easier ). They’ve visited community centres and set up booths at celebrations 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 motorcycle lock loans to customers, and plastered the Project 529 logo on as many bikes as they could to deter would-be thieves.

A motorcycle without its rear wheel and seat in Ottawa. Photo: Photawa/ Getty Images

” I don’t know if anybody else could do this but J ,” Brunt says.” He’s so smart and so good at so many things that it’s unbelievable. He’s 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 motorcycles 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 anxiety of their rides being stolen. She’s been heartened by the turnaround, which she credits to Allard’s work and renewed focus by the Vancouver police.

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

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

Still, Allard’s business is barely a runaway success. He has money it so far utilizing proceeds generated 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 project’s 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. He’s spent thousands of his own dollars here, and he’s not even Canadian. That’s 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 scheme, I wouldn’t be here ,” he says with a giggle. He acknowledges that Project 529 isn’t as “scalable” as he might like, but he hopes Vancouver’s results will inspire more cities to take an interest.

He’s already signed up police forces in some passenger townships 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 set a dent in the cross-border sales that fuel bike thefts in both cities.

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

As for that young lady at Granville Island, Brunt recollects her narrative for another reason. After first session her, he and Allard persuaded her to register her bike on the 529 Garage app. She did so, and uploaded some photos of herself in her green waterproofed alongside the motorcycle. Eventually, her motorcycle appeared on Craigslist, and with the help of the police and the information contained in the app, it was recovered and returned to her. It’s a story with a happy ending.

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