the solution to bicycle theft in Hawaii

the solution

I've spent a good number of hours thinking about the problem of bicycle theft. I even built an online bicycle registration service. I've met with people dealing with this issue in the bay area, and the creators of StolenBicycleRegistry.com and BikeIndex.org. After a lot of thought I ended up shutting down my bicycle registry service because I came to understand both how simple the problem is to solve, and how difficult.

"Simple" is not the same as "easy".

Here is what needs to happen to actually make a difference in bicycle theft:

Whenever a person is buying a bicycle, they must first check the serial number against a database of stolen bicycles. If it's stolen, don't buy it.

This is theoretically simple, but a moments contemplation will quickly reveal why this is not easy. It will take a lot of effort to educate all bicycle buyers to do this. The easy part is to create a database that is easily searchable, that everybody can use to register their bike, either before or after it's stolen. There are existing options, but my current favorite choice for that is bikeindex.org. More important than which registration service in particular to use is that one is selected, and that it is easy to use both by the public and law enforcement officers.

The real problem of bicycle theft is that bicycles are in the sweet spot of being easy to steal and easy to sell, with little risk. Some bicycles might be stolen for other reasons, but the purpose of the vast majority of bicycle thefts is to generate cash. 

The best, most effective way to directly combat bicycle theft is to stop buying stolen bicycles.

There are many technical "solutions" (GPS trackers, alarms/detectors + notifiers, crowd-based data gathering with bluetooth) but all of these are expensive and easily defeated, especially if deployed massively. (If every bicycle has a GPS tracker, bicycle thieves will very quickly learn to disable it ASAP.) These technical approaches may help individuals combat bike theft for their own bikes, but will not succeed for all bicycles, and will not make a serious dent in the general problem of bicycle theft.

The current "standard" solution is to have a registration service, oftentimes only accessible to law enforcement, and to rely on police to check the registration status of bicycles. The actual only case where this accomplishes anything is when police confiscate a bunch of obviously stolen bicycles and use the data to return the bicycles.

Bicycle recovery is not the same thing as deterring bicycle theft.

This current standard approach of bicycle registration is useless in deterring theft. It does nothing to dissuade thieves from stealing. It does not increase their risk of being caught. Bicycle registries that are not accessible to the public are worthless in terms of deterring bicycle theft.

what about Hawaii?

Here in Hawaii, we have some factors in our favor:

  1. Stolen bicycles do not cross state lines
  2. Smaller population
  3. Kuleana

Since bikes do not cross state lines, we can implement a solution state-wide, and it cannot be defeated by taking bikes to the next state. Seriously, this is a problem in the mainland.

Having a smaller population, we will have an easier time educating the public. I'm not an expert on public relations, but I expect it boils down to money vs time. The more money we throw at the issue, the faster it gets done. If we don't have a lot of money, it will take longer. But, I believe it is completely possible and doable. I'm imagining a time-line of 1 to 5 years.

We have the concept of kuleana, being responsible individually in order that all of us collectively can have a better life. This is exactly the understanding that is required to get people to do this. Individually, people are better off not checking if a bike is stolen because they can "get a deal" and it's certainly less hassle. But by all of us working together (checking before buying) we can ensure that our own bicycles are less likely to be stolen. The best defense against my bike being stolen is that the potential buyer will not buy it.

Given these factors, and the already available technology (e.g. bikeindex.org) and a little bit of will, I truly believe that Hawaii can quickly become a model of how to stop bicycle theft for the rest of the U.S. It's totally possible.

Final note: I've been wrong before, and I've learned. I've been talking about this approach for a while, and so far I've heard no serious counter arguments, or better proposals. The only reaction I've observed is people changing the subject. I suspect that people believe this approach is too hard to get done, and would rather talk about other "technical" solutions. If there is some problem with this proposal other than "it's too hard", or something that is easier/more effective, I'd love to hear it.

want more?

If you're interested in this and want to contribute, come join the conversation at 

https://groups.google.com/d/forum/btrthi/

2 responses
This sounds like a solid idea. Would it be possible to pre-populate it with all the data from bicycle registrations? That could probably be a legislative decision, though I'm not sure whether people would have privacy concerns, or if it's a good candidate for open data.
I suspect that the error rate in the current registration system is so bad that it would be a bad idea to use it. Online solutions are generally email address-centric, and that data is not in the old system, either, so another point against. Yes, the privacy issues are huge. :)