Oversimplified: Bicycle Registration

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October 6, 2014

This is a conversation about bicycle registration. So naturally, it begins with a U-lock.

Theft is overwhelmingly a crime of convenience. Bikes that are easy to steal, occasionally get stolen. It’s rarely about value, or flashy paint, it’s about ease. Bikes that are hard to steal, rarely get stolen.

Strong knowledge and a stronger U-lock are your best defense. Get that knowledge here.

Now, on to registration.

What is bike registration?

Registration means adding your bike’s fingerprint to a database, so in the unlikely event of loss, it can be identified. There are several registration databases, and all are available to law enforcement, but the best ones are also available to other cyclists. We’ll get to our favorite below.

Does anyone actually do it?

Registration is free (most places) and quick, but chances are you haven’t done it. Most of the people we asked haven’t registered either. Why?

What we hear is, “It feels pointless. Will I actually get my bike back?” While that’s impossible to say there are lots of remarkable recovery stories, not just requiems of loss.

Let's be honest. Police departments everywhere have lots to do, and chasing bike thieves around usually isn't a top priority. We're lucky here because the San Francisco Police Department has a de facto bike theft prevention and recovery team (@SFPDBikeTheft). We also have SAFE Bikes, a city specific education, registration and recovery program. They both do an amazing job, but they're the exception across the country, not the rule.

For most, the mental and emotional picture of loss is clouded by a lack of data, as bike theft is under reported and recovery stories are anecdotal. We know that some percentage of bikes are stolen, and we know that some percentage of those stolen bikes are recovered. No one knows what percentage of stolen bikes make it back home.

Here's something else we know, and this is big: recovery is no longer reliant only on law enforcement. The cycling community now has tools to self-police local markets, and we're getting good at it.

How does registration make a difference?

Stolen bikes are easily resold, in part, because ID'ing has historically been the exclusive domain of police, and not that many bikes end up in police impound lockers. 10 years ago it was much harder to know if that flea market gem was hot. That's changing rapidly with technology (not even mentioning GPS tracking).

Bike theft is personal, and empathy among cyclists is strong. Strangers are proving themselves willing to reunite bikes with riders when confronted with obviously stolen goods.

There are petitions to Craigslist and eBay here (started by Project 529) asking each to require serial numbers on sales. That simple procedural change would make selling stolen bikes at market value much harder. Making stolen bikes harder to sell means fewer bikes end up stolen.

When a bike goes missing, owners take to social media to spread the message. When a stranger sees the bike at a flea market, or in a Craigslist post, she hops back on Facebook to alert the owner. If the bike is registered, the owner can involve the police and provide ownership proof. Without registration, verification is slowed, and recovery compromised. It’s the network of cyclists that located the bike, but registration plus law enforcement that helped return it.

Bryan Hance knows that scenario well, he's been running Stolen Bike Registry (which just merged with Bike Index) in his spare time for years. He's been involved with or witness to thousands of recoveries and countless stories of community policing. "Smart phones have changed the game," he says. "Allowing immediate access to open data makes civic engagement fast and easy."

For example, a new Twitter bot @isitstolen allows anyone to search serial numbers in a registration database via a single tweet.

And yes, most tweets come back with this message: "Sorry, I couldn't find that bike..."

Which brings us to the point.

Should you register?

Yes. We recommend that you do. If you're not already sold, here are two compelling reasons:

    1. If someone finds your bike, they'll be able to find you.
    2. If you find your bike, you'll easily be able to prove to the police that it's yours.

In our research Bike Index has proven to be a powerful and user friendly database. It's open source and smart on features; you can even register your U-lock key just in case you lose it. They are attacking this issue with the ingenuity of tech entrepreneurs, and it shows.

How to register?

The info needed to register is info you should have and keep in a safe place (like your freezer) anyway. Specifically:

  • Serial number
  • Bike make and model
  • Current pics of your bike, including any unique details (bonus if you're in one)
  • Purchase receipt (Optional: this is for you, not registration)

Most serial numbers are on the underside of the bike, below the crankset. If yours is not there, click here to see alternative options.

Tip: you might find more than one number on your bike. When registering, enter them all. There's no such thing as too much information.

Express (5 minutes)

  • Create Bike Index account to manage your registration
  • Verify registration via confirmation email
  • Enter essential info (serial #, manufacturer, contact info, etc)
  • "Claim your bike" via concluding email

That's it. If need be you can stop here. The bones of the bike are now captured and attached to your account. When you've got more time, log back in to paint a more detailed picture.

Deluxe (10 more minutes)

  • Add pictures (at the least, do this)
  • Add specific build info like wheel size, gearing, handlebar type
  • If desired, you can even make a public page for your bike(s) to share

If you're in San Francisco, consider also registering with SF SAFE Bikes. The Bike Index will be your guardian nationally, SF SAFE will be an extra layer of protection inside the city.

Be part of this sea change

The more utilized registration becomes, the harder it will be to traffic in stolen bikes. The harder to traffic, the safer the streets. When you register your bike, you're protecting your neighbor's bike as well.

P.S. Click here for our Oversimplified guide to theft.