The never-ending war against bike thieves

The years go by and so do our bikes. A look at how we have tried over and over to foil this frustrating crime.
In 1993, CBC's Prime Time News talks to cyclists in Toronto who have had their bicycles stolen. 0:26
We put locks on them, we try to look after them. But we can only do so much to stop people from stealing our bikes.

It's a frustrating crime that can happen more than once to an unlucky cyclist, even when locks are used as a preventative measure.

This perpetual problem for riders often leaves police looking for ways of pursuing the perpetrators. 

A lock is better than no lock

The first step to protecting a bike is to lock it up. And as Calgary police advised riders more than 30 years ago, it was a good idea to do that at home, too.

The CBC's Len Grant takes a look at bike theft in Calgary in 1986. 1:30

Const. Kevin Leitch had looked at the stats back then and found that nearly three-quarters of thefts in the city involved unlocked bikes — most of which were taken from private property.

"As they are becoming more and more expensive, they become more and more attractive to steal," Leitch told CBC in December of 1986, a year in which thieves reportedly stole more than $600,000 worth of bicycles in the city.

"And as long as they are not locked up, it's easy."

Making a list

Another strategy police have used is to have cyclists register their bicycles, so that when a stolen bike is recovered, it can be returned to the rightful owner.

In 1980, the CBC's Cheryl Runyon was reporting on such a program in Fredericton, a city where bike theft was a growing concern.

The CBC's Cheryl Runyon talks about a bike identification program in place in Fredericton in 1980. 0:12

"Organized crime hasn't hit New Brunswick yet, but bike theft is a serious problem — even in Fredericton," said Runyon, while standing in a room full of recovered bicycles.

Runyon spoke to a cyclist who told her about a program that was stamping bikes with an identifying number, as well as indications that it was part of a police-supported program.

"Locking your bike is one of the most effective safeguards against theft — that and taking care where you leave it," Runyon reported.

"In the unfortunate event that your bike is stolen, it's nice to know the bike identification program could help you get it back."

Enter the bait bike

On occasion, police have even set up sting operations to try to catch would-be bike thieves in the act.

That was the case in Toronto in 1993, when a rising number of thefts drove local police to set up a sting. It was a year in which more than 95,000 bicycles were reported stolen across the country, according to Statistics Canada data.

Metro Toronto Police Const. Joe Gray explains the impetus for a bike sting in 1993. 1:06

The Metro Toronto Police took a bike they had previously seized and used it as bait. Then they waited and watched. They also kept a camera rolling.

Thirty-four people ended up being charged. A few times, things got ugly when police confronted the people on the bikes, leading to assault charges being laid.

'The suspect threw the bike'

"In one instance, the suspect threw the bike at the officer," said Metro Toronto Police Const. Joe Gray, an officer who helped develop the operation.

Gray said police had learned bike theft was a crime that drew in a wide array of participants.

"During the project, we discovered that it's not just kids. There was people of all ages taking the bikes," he said. 

A year later, they repeated the approach and nabbed another 32 arrests in a similar sting.

A sting strategy with legs

This strategy to stop two-wheel thefts seemingly had legs, as Ottawa police tried their own bait-bike operation in the capital a little over a decade later, in the spring of 2006.

In 2006, Ottawa police tried a bait-bike operation of their own. 0:44

Police had learned through a survey that bike theft was an issue that rankled Ottawans. Some 2,000 bicycles a year were being stolen there at that time.

"In response to that, the officers decided to do this project," said Ottawa police Staff Sgt. Monique Perras, referring to the bait-bike operation that saw 10 people charged.