Bike Theft Task Force, Project 529 team up on census effort with new app

Posted by on May 18th, 2015 at 2:46 pm

Love bikes? Hate theft? Seeking volunteers to build
a baseline of Portland bike parking(Graphic by J Allard)

J Allard is CEO and Founder of Project 529 and a Core Team member of the Portland Police Bureau Bike Theft Task Force.

I’ve learned a lot about bike theft after being victimized 3 years ago, and even more as we’ve developed and rolled out the 529 Garage. A common pattern as I speak to people is the desire for a silver bullet solution. Sorry fellow cyclists, there isn’t one.

Fact is, today’s bike thieves and fences are more organized, more dedicated and leveraging technology better than the communities they are attacking. To fight back, we’re going to have to step up our game, and I’m happy that here in Portland we’ve begun to with the formation of the Bike Theft Task Force.

One of my biggest learnings is how little data and research exists. I can’t think of any $400 million problem (annual, in the US alone) that has received as little focused attention as bike theft. Sure, there’s a couple of general reports, but no deep studies on the problem that can offer much insight to the problem as we search for answers.

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A common silver bullet offered is, “outlaw cable locks and bike theft will all but disappear.” Given that 90% of cables can be cut in less than 5 seconds with a $12 set of bolt cutters it’s hard to argue that cable locks are insufficient as a primary security device. But, are cable locks really the primary contributor to the 10+ bike thefts a day in our city?

Frustrated with a lack of data and unwilling to accept this common perception at face value, I put together an simple app and set out to collect some real data and see what could be learned. I built the app on a platform called Fulcrum from a company called Spatial Networks. I knew nothing about the company before building the app, but I dropped them an email and one of the founders and top engineers called me the same day. They were also cyclists, frustrated with theft, excited about the project and offered their full support and sponsorship.

Fulcrum powers the 529 Bike Census app and supports
both Android and iPhone platforms.

It’s a simple smartphone app that allows the user to snap a photo and gather the answer to a couple of questions – manufacturer and type of bike, what it’s locked to, how it’s locked and so forth. It takes about 30 seconds to collect the data on a given bike and of course, the app collects the location.

In the span of one weekend, I had the app up and running and collected 529 samples around downtown and NW Portland. After about 100 samples, I came upon a couple of trends. It became clear that I had a lot of misconceptions and assumptions about bikes in Portland that needed adjusting. More importantly, I learned that it seems almost everyone got the memo to use U-locks, but didn’t read the second part that told them how to use them effectively. With just over 500 samples, over one weekend in a small part of Portland, there’s not enough data for me to feel strongly about the statistical value of it, but there are definite patterns visible to suggest we should keep going (check out this blog post for a couple of the early stats).

We need help getting more data, particularly on the eastside and the outskirts of the city core (red = sample, blue = rack, pink = theft report).

Sharing the early findings with the Task Force, we collectively agreed that getting a solid baseline of data for how cyclists are locking in Portland would be valuable to have to help shape our priorities and efforts, and later to test the effectiveness of some of the programs. Additionally, we’re working with the Portland Police Bureau to compare some of this data with theft reports and recovered bikes to see what else we can learn about this epidemic.

We need your help to collect more data. It only takes about 10 minutes to get up and running and less than a minute to record a bike. We currently have about a dozen folks collecting data and over 1,600 samples. Drop a note to bikecensus@project529.com and help us collect 3,000 samples by the end of May.

Register your bike, lock it right and report suspicious activity to the Portland Police.

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

25 Comments
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    Eric May 18, 2015 at 3:11 pm

    Does a person document their own bike only, or walk around the streets snapping pictures of any locked up bike? Is the data public?

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      Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) May 18, 2015 at 3:24 pm

      Eric,

      The idea is that volunteers walk around and get the data from every bike they come across. Volunteers will be trained and will be prepared to answer questions and engage people about what they’re doing. I don’t think the data will be fully public, but I’ll let J answer that question.

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        Daniel Costantino May 18, 2015 at 4:06 pm

        Will volunteers have a ‘territory’ to prevent double-counts?

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          tedder May 18, 2015 at 6:56 pm

          I suggest the volunteers tag streetcorners with John Henrys and engage in a turf war. Polo mallets and thumbtacks are allowed as weapons.

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    William Henderson May 18, 2015 at 3:18 pm

    This is a great idea. Excited to see the results.

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    Dawn May 18, 2015 at 3:38 pm

    Call me a dummy but why no link to show/tell me how to use my u lock effectively. I’ll go google it now but I just assumed it was self explanatory. But I also assume I’m probably doing it wrong now that I know there’s a correct way.

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      Eric May 18, 2015 at 9:13 pm

      I am a believer that any shop selling new bikes and/or locks should actively engage the buyer on how to register their serial number and properly lock up a bike. A little education at the front end goes a long way.

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        nothstine May 18, 2015 at 10:13 pm

        When I started cycling again, about a dozen years ago, what I didn’t know would have filled a book. I bought my first bike plus a cable lock that was lame even by cable lock standards, and it was stolen after a few months. I walked into the same bike shop and explained why I was shopping for a bike again. The sales person asked what kind of lock I’d had, and I pointed to the same model on an end-of-aisle display. The sales person cracked up. “THAT wouldn’t stop anyone!” he laughed. I watched him for a few moments, to see if he saw any problem with that. Apparently he didn’t. Haven’t set foot in any of their stores since. (No names, but the chain rhymes with “Mike Mallory”)

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          AC May 19, 2015 at 9:59 am

          Bike shops cannot win on that one, Nothstine. Cable locks are convenient, inexpensive and appropriate for a lot of riders. Don’t carry them and you are elitist or something. Believe it or not, a lot of shoppers will disregard warnings for the reasons above for inexpensive convenience. Not saying that was you.

          By the way, Bike Gallery has been in business 40 years and employed hundreds of people. Yeah, I bet one was insensitive and could have hurt your feelings. Most, though are hard working people who care.

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            davemess May 19, 2015 at 1:10 pm

            That doesn’t mean that employees should not give those warnings. They should at least be trying to explain that to people.

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            nothstine May 24, 2015 at 11:24 pm

            Hi, AC: You’re right both that I was clueless (swear to god I saw my first Gary Fisher bike and thought ‘seriously? the chess guy?’) and soon learned my $400 lesson. And I give BG total props for the high profile work they’ve done to support cycling in the community. But I think bike shops can break even, if not win, on that one. Keeping with the comment thread, why would a supporter of cycling sell screamingly-obvious newbies stuff that they knew was low-grade without at least having The Conversation about bike theft?

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      mikeybikey May 20, 2015 at 11:34 am

      You are no dummy. I used u-locks for years and I’ve grown to hate them due to their usability flaws. I’ve opted for a frame lock in combination with a strong chain. This is much more intuitive, convenient and flexible and is a pretty standard approach in Amsterdam where there is also a lot of bicycle theft. Of course the # of bike shops in the city that sell frame locks and/or have a good selection of strong chains is what?

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    J Allard May 18, 2015 at 3:48 pm

    Eric – we will be making a number of the findings public, but not the complete raw data. For example – it’s probably not a terrific idea to show thieves what areas have the “loosest locks”, where bikes are often locked to signs or where the most expensive bikes tend to congregate.

    Our filter will be “does this help the community” with what is made public. The private data can be used in concert with the police and PBOT in a fuller way. For example – this area has a lot of bikes parked regularly but not a lot of staples.

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      J Allard May 18, 2015 at 4:07 pm

      dawn – the task force is working on a resource to help with education. Stand by! In the meantime you can hit up endbiketheft.org (a PBOT resource). We post weekly tips on @project529 on Twitter and Facebook too.

      While there are exceptions and unique Scenarios, the short answer is “frame+wheel to secured steel”.

      The most “popular” technique I see is simply locking the top tube (the bar you swing your leg over) to a staple (blue) rack. Two problems. First, thief can twist the bike and potentially break the lock. Second, thief can cut or remove rack, slip lock off and ride away and deal with lock later.

      Expanding:

      – make sure the object you are locking to is secure at the base and not something where a thief can easily slip off the bike and lock intact (like a 4′ parking sign)
      – always make sure the frame is secured. You’ve seen the lonely wheels left at racks right?
      – disable the bike from being ridden without defeating the lock. That means wheel+frame to the rack.

      Consider also

      – security skewers if you have quick releases. The gravity ones are “tool free” the others require a unique key
      – a second lock or accessory cable to secure the second wheel and saddle
      – where you park. Overnight is never a good idea. Day or night, park in a high visibility area if you can

      In sum, #thinklikeathief. After you lock it, step away and think about how your lock job could be defeated and how you might improve it.

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        Cheif May 18, 2015 at 4:22 pm

        +1 to all that but to expand on using locking skewers vs quick release: NEVER use quick release anything unless you are with your bike at all times. Do not lock your bike up with quick release.

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      Random Guy May 18, 2015 at 4:13 pm

      And can I do all this coolness on my Courier?

      Oh wait, Sinofsky.

      Never mind.

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      Eric May 18, 2015 at 9:14 pm

      I was going to metion that this data should probably NOT be made public…considering thieves are now leverging technology.

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    PDXbound May 18, 2015 at 8:08 pm

    Does Project 529 plan on using a “Bait Bike” program? It seems to be working pretty well in other cities.

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    J Allard May 19, 2015 at 7:36 am

    PDXBound. Bait bikes are under consideration as part of the Bike Theft Task Force. Stay tuned. Nothing more to say at this time.

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      Brian May 19, 2015 at 8:39 am

      Are bait bikes with people stationed nearby with paintball guns a consideration?

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    David Lewis May 19, 2015 at 1:03 pm

    One potential use for this data is property insurance premium adjustments for certain geographic areas, so it’s not hard to imagine how its collection could be monetized.

    I’d prefer to see a standardized registration system that matches a serial number with an owner from the moment the bicycle leaves the store, and a parallel system for private sales, and be accessible to relevant parties including law enforcement. The idea is to encourage lawful ownership and simultaneously make post-theft recovery relatively straightforward. As I understand it, the only way a thief can be prosecuted (or even have his theft confiscated) is if he is caught by uniformed officers with a serialized frame or complete bike that has previously been reported stolen, but I think it would be far more effective to have a prepopulated serial database of bicycles and their lawful owners which can be cross referenced in the field, even if it hasn’t been reported as stolen. The thief would have some embarrassing questions to answer about why he has others’ property, and those people could be contacted for confirmation. Ultimately, given time for the word to get out, those who rely on stolen property for their shadow economy may not see bicycles as the street currency they are today.

    Looking at the big picture, which this app may help reveal, patterns could potentially emerge that could make some folks uncomfortable. Discomfort is a powerful motivating factor!

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      J Allard May 19, 2015 at 11:10 pm

      Hey David, good thoughts here.

      First, goal isn’t to monetize the data – the goal is simply to learn patterns and establish a baseline to help shape community efforts to improve bike security – initially in Portland, but already other cities are expressing interest. Maybe there’s value to others, certainly if there are organizations that can help improve cycling in a community that express interest – we’ll talk.

      In terms of the shop registration, you’ll get no argument from us! We’d love nothing more than to see every bike out the door (or for that matter, the ones that come in the door too) get registered!

      The 529 Garage has a few considerations specifically designed to help shops get bikes registered.

      – Retail kit. this is a simple package that explains 529 Garage, the importance of registering and a 529 Shield. If unfamiliar – think of the 529 Shield as a combination “license plate” and “ADT sign” – it puts would-be-thieves on notice that the bike is registered, gives you a second unique ID to aid in recovery and is easy for everyone to read (vs. serial numbers). $10/bike or $25/4 bikes is a way for the shops to earn a little money and to get some support for the project (good software ain’t cheap!)

      – Bike Shop Edition. This is a “mode” that the 529 Garage app (or site) can be run in that allows a shop to register the customer’s bike provided they have an email address for them. Basically, the customer writes their e-mail and the location they’d like the Shield on a card that can be stapled to the brake cables or bars during repair or final check and the shop can snap photos and record all of the important data in the database – takes about 3 minutes. Some shops charge for this service, others include it as a freebie – for example, with a bike purchase or full tune.

      Candidly, we’ve been a lot more focused on building the software than trying to motivate shops to pick it up. We’re a small team and “sales” is a lot of effort. We’d love help connecting up with shops we haven’t talked to.

      We’ve also kicked around the idea of integrating directly with POS systems, but the downside there is that a lot of the uniquely identifying information (orange bar tape, yellow fenders for example) wouldn’t get included, nor would there be photos. Most success we’ve seen isn’t coming from simple serial number searching, but efforts from the community being on the lookout for THAT bike – and photos and unique details mean a lot.

      We’ve been oriented around helping cyclists create a quality record of their bike to alert the community, police and insurance and our strategy to do that has been to not delegate that to the robots, but to have real people capture the details of the bike (whether the cyclists or the shops). And, we’ve prioritized new work around some unique needs of universities and law enforcement.

      Of course, this is not to suggest that having your serial number recorded and basic bike data is a bad thing, simply that the community typically acts more on the texture surrounding a bike – and a picture speaks a 1,000 words. Additionally, law enforcement and insurance can offer more to a victim based on the detail of their records.

      Even if most bikes get registered, one of the biggest problems remains unregulated online marketplaces like eBay and Craigslist who don’t require serial numbers on bike listings (or for that matter, any kind of background check or transparency to authorities or prospective buyers). A huge % of the volume of stolen bikes flow through these channels. We have been pushing on both Craigslist and eBay for 18 months to no avail. Sites like these could do a lot, with little effort, to generate the “discomfort” you suggest.

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    dan May 19, 2015 at 2:36 pm

    There’s always my approach: have a quick-release front wheel that’s so crappy that even a thief won’t take it. U-lock goes around the back rim and seat stays then locks around a staple, railing, etc. I’m kind of hoping someone steals my front wheel so I can get something nicer, but apparently they can tell it’s a $30 wheel and aren’t interested.

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    tedder May 19, 2015 at 3:53 pm

    Went for a 20min walk today and documented 22 bikes. One wasn’t even locked- the owner was probably inside the nearby coffeeshop, but were they paying enough attention to chase after the bike? Probably not.

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