Could an app solve Toronto's bike theft problem? It's helping Vancouver

Bike thefts have dropped by 30 per cent in Vancouver since the city, police, and cyclists there adopted a new registration and reporting app two years ago — and now there's talk of bringing the tool to Toronto.

Vancouver Police have seen a 30% drop in bike thefts since adopting Project 529 Garage in 2015

In Vancouver victims of bicycle theft can post their bikes on the Project 529 Garage app, with serial numbers and distinctive characteristics that may lead to the bikes' recovery. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Bike thefts have dropped by 30 per cent in Vancouver since the city, police, and cyclists there adopted a new registration and reporting app two years ago — and now there's talk of bringing the tool to Toronto.

Cycle Toronto is in discussions with the city and police about the possibility of following Vancouver's lead. The cycling advocacy group says an app would be an important step toward cracking bike theft in Toronto.

I think quite frankly the system here is broken.- Jared Kolb, Executive director of Cycle Toronto

"I think quite frankly the system here is broken," said Jared Kolb, executive director of Cycle Toronto.

"It's time to move past the old approaches which were really focused on simply buying a good lock and locking it up in a highly visible place." 

Vancouver adopted a Portland-based app called Project 529 Garage in October 2015. 

Since then about 22,000 cyclists have registered their bikes with it in the city, according Const. Robert Brunt, from Vancouver Police. He's been the liaison on the project since day one.

"It's way beyond what I imagined," Brunt told CBC Toronto. "We hit 10,000 in roughly six months ... and it's expanded from just Vancouver to over 30 other cities in the province."

This week CBC Toronto has brought you a series of stories looking at bike thefts in the city. The numbers are on the rise, and in 2016 only about one per cent of stolen bikes were recovered, according to new police data.

There are also a rising number of bikes stolen in break and enters and from apartment and condo buildings. You can dig into the numbers yourself using our interactive map.

So how might an app like Project 529 Garage help curb the rising number of bike thefts in Toronto?

Kolb says the difference will come down to all of the information currently provided by the Toronto Police registration system or Facebook groups being in one place in the app — to help everyone from cyclists on the street to police. 
Jared Kolb, executive director of Cycle Toronto, wants this city to adopt an app-based approach to dealing with bike theft. (Nicole Brockbank/CBC)

With Project 529 Garage users download the app, get a serial number tag for their bike and create a bike profile that gets uploaded to the whole app database.

Then if your bike gets stolen, Kolb says you just hit a stolen bike alert button and app users within several kilometres get an alert on their phones about your bike.

"It also sends a signal to police and police are a crucial partner," said Kolb. "Effectively they're helping to register bikes, there's a social community around it and police are on the lookout."

App gets 'everyone to help'

Brunt says that's been the key in Vancouver.

"It's a system that allows everyone to help," said Brunt. "We have the bike stores involved, we have the community involved, we have cyclists involved, we have the city involved, we have the police department involved.

"When you get all of those tools working together as one, you get the huge results we've got."

Const. Robert Brunt with Vancouver Police says the Project 529 Garage app provides a system that allows everyone to help stop bike theft. (CBC)

One of the other takeaways Brunt's found from the app is the ability to track bikes out of town.

"We had a bike registered in Vancouver, an electric bike, and it was recovered off Craigslist in San Francisco. So the bikes are moving huge distances."

Stickers act as deterrent

Many cyclists who use the app in Vancouver also put a Project 529 Garage decal sticker on their bike, which app founder, J. Allard says acts as a deterrent to bike thieves.

"It's a very difficult-to-remove sticker," Allard told CBC Toronto. "It signals to the would-be thief, much like a home security system in your window, 'If you monkey with this the cops and community are going to know about it as soon as I find out.'"

For now, Project 529 Garage is mostly being used on the west coast in B.C. and the United States, according to Allard.

He wouldn't tell CBC Toronto if the app was coming here, but did reveal that if your city has an NHL team he's likely in talks about implementing the app there.

In terms of Kolb's efforts in Toronto he says one app isn't necessarily better than another, but his cycling advocacy group is trying to bring a "similar product" this way.


Nicole Brockbank

Reporter, CBC Toronto

Nicole Brockbank is a reporter for CBC Toronto's Enterprise Unit. Fuelled by coffee, she digs up, researches and writes original investigative and feature stories.

with files from Lauren Pelley