Wet bicycles at a rack in Berkeley. Photo: Marc Zuo
An independent bike registry could help cyclists recover stolen bikes and ensure they don’t buy stolen ones to begin with. Photo: Marc Zuo

By Francesca Paris

Many cyclists in Berkeley know the all-too-common pain of losing a bike to thieves. Far fewer have experienced the opposite: the rare joy of a reunion. The Berkeley Police Department wants to change that, with the help of an independent bike registry called Bike Index.

The police department’s struggle with unregistered bikes manifests itself in the large number of bikes sitting in its property room. Without a police report on file that includes a serial number, it’s next to impossible to connect a stolen bike to its owner.

Many owners don’t bother to record the serial number before a theft, so finding a bicycle again is unlikely, especially if the stolen bike has crossed city lines. As a result, recovered bikes pile up in BART and police storerooms to be eventually auctioned off, donated or repurposed.

Other times, the bikes aren’t recovered at all. According to Sgt. Spencer Fomby, the supervisor of the Berkeley Police Community Services Bureau, there are instances when police stop a suspect and can’t determine whether a bike is stolen because its serial number hasn’t been recorded in the system the department uses for reports of stolen goods.

If the department can’t find a record, officers have begun turning to Bike Index, an independent bicycle registry that anyone can search by serial number.

“Bike Index can fill the gaps,” Fomby said.

Recovered bikes. Photo: BPD
Stolen bikes recovered by police during a raid in 2014. Photo: Berkeley Police Department

Bike Index is the creation of Seth Herr, a former bike mechanic frustrated by his customers’ inability to get their stolen bikes back. Founded in Chicago in 2013 thanks to a Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $50,000, Bike Index is a small organization with no full-time staff. It has partnered with nonprofits, bike shops and law enforcement agencies across the country, including the Berkeley Police Department, Bike East Bay and several bike shops in Berkeley.

Users can register their bikes at no cost with the Bike Index. It is open-source, so anyone can search the entire database if they encounter a bike they think may be stolen, or wants to ensure that they’re not buying stolen property when they purchase a bike from an online or local seller.

Bike Index also offers special tools for law enforcement to help them run large batches of serial numbers through the database.

Herr hopes that the index will encourage more people to ride bikes.

“We want to make biking for transportation less threatening,” he said.

Bike Index is in the process of becoming a nonprofit because, as Herr said, it is invested in and excited about providing a service, and “not looking to make quick cash.”

Robert Prinz, Bike East Bay’s education director, said this is one of the reasons Bike East Bay prefers the Bike Index to the many other bike registries out there.

“We trust that they’re working on this because they want to serve a public good, not because they see a chance to make money,” Prinz said, adding that the free registration is a crucial factor. “We want to make sure what we support is free and equitable.”

Berkeley’s Municipal Code includes an ordinance from 1976 that makes it illegal to use a bicycle that has not been registered and licensed. The license entails a nominal yearly fee of $2. Licensing is available through UCPD but, according to Prinz, hardly anyone goes through with the registration, which is not advertised and rarely enforced.

“Internal bike registration regulations are anachronistic at this point,” he said. “They’re usually only enforced when police are looking to ding a cyclist… for example, in the context of a protest, which is another aspect of this whole equity equation.”

Bike East Bay is trying to encourage the city to drop the registration and promote free registries. The latter is already in effect through the city’s police department: BPD’s bicycle registration page links directly to Bike Index.

Prinz said individual bike registration is only part of the bigger picture: Reducing bike theft is a complicated process. On an individual level, it is important to lock and store bikes properly — almost all bikes stolen in the East Bay have cable locks or are left outside overnight, neither of which is recommended.

He also advises shoppers to take responsibility for checking that a bike for sale isn’t stolen before buying it by running the serial number through Bike Index (which also offers a guide to not buying stolen bikes).

Not being cautious when buying bikes contributes to the problem

“By not being cautious about the bikes we’re buying, we’re contributing to the problem,” Prinz said. “And if you buy a stolen bike, it’s not actually yours. Technically, it can be recovered by the owner at any time, so there is a selfish motivation too.”

Fomby’s bureau is working at a broader level, trying to get retailers to register bikes with the Bike Index before selling or reselling them, and working with UC Berkeley police to identify chronic offenders in the city. The more bikes are registered, the easier it becomes to return stolen bikes and crack down on hotspots of bike theft in the community.

Police said 314 bikes were reported stolen in Berkeley in the first half of 2015, compared to 328 in the same period last year. (That does not include stolen bikes reported to BART Police or UCPD.) Fomby says the reduction is not much more than noise in the data and that the department wants to make a much bigger impact on that number, in part through registration.

According to UCPD, “in 2014 on the UC Berkeley campus alone, 299 bicycles were reported stolen resulting in a loss of $133,000 to the victims; most of whom are our students, staff members, and faculty.”

Bike Index’s greatest strength, according to Herr, is its reach. The organization is committed to being open source and allowing all other registries access to its data.

Herr told Berkeleyside he hopes that, as more users register — the site has over 48,000 registered bikes currently — cyclists will realize that no other registry has such a widespread reach. That is important, he added, because bike thieves aren’t just stealing and selling bikes in Berkeley: They might take a stolen bike from Berkeley to Oakland or San Francisco or even farther away, rendering more local databases useless.

Nonetheless, the site still encourages its users to register with multiple databases if they have a strong, local registry. Ultimately, Herr said, Bike Index is just in it to “make bike theft a little less convenient.”

Berkeley Police find bike stash, still seeking victims (10.17.14)
Berkeley Bicycle Plan workshop draws a crowd (04.28.15)
Berkeley Bike Festival, cycling plan open house coming up (4.22.15)
Can Berkeley be the most bike-friendly city in the country? (05.09.13)

Francesca Paris, a summer 2015 reporting intern at Berkeleyside, is a sophomore at Williams College in Williamstown, MA. 

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