Hundreds of bikes sit in a Toronto warehouse after they were seized by police as part of a July 2008 investigation into a theft ring. ((Dwight Friesen/CBC))

From souped-up road racers to kids' two-wheelers with Dora the Explorer decals, the bicycles stood row upon row in a Toronto warehouse, all with one thing in common: they were seized in a police crackdown on a suspected bike theft ring.

Police were displaying the bicycles, among more than 2,700 seized in a series of July raids, in hopes of reuniting them with their owners.

And there are a lot of owners out there trying to track down their stolen rides. Toronto resident Heather Spratt is one of them.

"Yesterday, I locked up my bike, went to get a newspaper," Spratt told the CBC on July 17 as the police operation was just beginning. "I came back, and it was gone."

Almost 4,800 bikes were reported stolen in Toronto last year. That's the most of any major Canadian city, almost twice the number reported to Montreal police and three times that reported to Vancouver police.

Still, the reported thefts — which may be only a fraction of the real number — pale beside the bicycle thievery that goes on in big European cities. The number of reported thefts has actually been on the decline in Canada over the past few years, at least according to the official figures.


Sources: Local police, Statistics Canada

The real figures

Bike thefts: 2007

Province/Territory Bikes stolen Per 100,000 residents
 Newfoundland and Labrador  316  62.42
 Prince Edward Island  251  181.06
 Nova Scotia  731  78.26
 New Brunswick  781  104.16
 Quebec  9,268  120.35
 Ontario  16,360  127.77
 Manitoba  2,052  172.92
 Saskatchewan  1,815  182.07
 Alberta  4,455  128.24
 British Columbia  7,668  175.06
 Yukon  104  335.61
Nunavut/N.W.T.  n/a n/a
 Canada 44,013  133.47

Numbers are for bicycles reported stolen to police. Source: Statistics Canada

Across Canada, 44,013 bikes were reported stolen in 2007, according to Statistics Canada, which tracks police reports. But police and bicycling advocates say that doesn't even come close to the real figures, because many victims don't report the crime.

Anywhere from 7,000 to 12,000 bikes are stolen each year in Toronto, according to various estimates. Across Canada, it could be 100,000 or higher.

But despite reports of surging bike sales, the official numbers of stolen bikes have been in steady decline in recent years, dropping 29.3 per cent since 2003.

That follows a well-documented dip in Canadian crime rates. But the bike-theft drop is steeper than the decline in property crimes (down 16 per cent), auto thefts (14.5 per cent) and thefts under $5,000 (17.5 per cent) over the same time period.

It raises the question: why the decline at a time when strong anecdotal evidence, and newspaper headlines, would lead us to believe bike theft is rampant?

Public apathy might play a role, says Shadi Jarjoura, a team member with bikeregistrycanada.com, a national bicycle registry. If riders don't believe the police are willing, or able, to recover stolen bicycles, why would they report thefts?

Yet, in many cities across Canada, police seize thousands of stolen bikes each year. In Edmonton, for example, police say 1,100 bikes were recovered last year while Statistics Canada reports 1,431 were stolen.

A surge of publicity around the stolen-bike investigation led to a massive uptick in Toronto bike registrations. Police said 436 bicycle owners registered their serial numbers online in June. That number jumped to almost 4,000 in July, after the high-profile raids and bike recoveries.

London stealing

For the person whose bike is lifted, the only statistic that really matters is the one that applies to his or her own stolen bike. British Conservative Leader David Cameron learned that lesson the hard way in July, when his mountain bike was pilfered from outside a London supermarket.

Cameron's bike was tracked down and recovered days later. "It's priceless to me," the politician told the Sunday Mirror newspaper after being reunited with his wheels. "I've done over a thousand miles on it and three sponsored bike rides of 250 miles each, so it's like an old friend. It's fantastic."

British crime authorities estimate that a bike is stolen every 71 seconds in England and Wales. That adds up to 439,000 bikes a year, which Halifax Home Insurance estimates costs British riders about $300 million annually.

According to the survey, just one per cent of the bikes were stolen from the victim's private property. About 89 per cent of all stolen bikes were taken while locked in a public place while 10 per cent were unlocked in public.

There may be more bikes on public display in Amsterdam than anywhere else in the world, what with 550,000 bikes on city streets. So it makes sense that some fraction of them are stolen each year — anywhere from several thousands, according to police reports, to estimates of 50,000 to 100,000 and higher.

Thwarting the thieves

The Dutch, though, are fighting back.

Many of the bicycles sold in the country are equipped with a microchip that can track a bike's location if it goes missing. A bicycle manufacturer has created an innovation that links the chips with a national bike registry.  

The country recently announced a major campaign to reduce the number of bikes stolen from 700,000 to 600,000. At the heart of the campaign are some tips Canadians could use to keep their two wheelers safe:

  • Use two locks.
  • Always lock a bicycle to something secure, such as a railing.
  • Register your bicycle with local police.

For more tips on preventing bicycle theft, visit the City of Toronto's website or check out our expert's take at CBC News Your Interview.