In 2014, 299 bicycles were reported stolen from the UC Berkeley campus. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
In 2014, 299 bicycles were reported stolen from the UC Berkeley campus. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

For over seven months, the UC Berkeley police have been surreptitiously planting bicycles equipped with tracking technology throughout campus in hopes of catching bike thieves.

The Bait Bike Program was kept confidential during the spring semester, but UCPD announced earlier this month that 31 arrests have been made since the initiative quietly went live in January. Reported bike thefts are down 45%, the department said in a press release.

“The word was starting to get out a little bit so we figured we would go ahead and let the community know we are trying to do something to impact the theft of bicycles,” said UCPD Lieutenant Marc DeCoulode.

The program has been a resounding success in the eyes of campus police. In 2014, 299 bikes — worth $133,000 — were reported stolen from UC Berkeley, but no more than a dozen arrests are made each year, DeCoulode said.

The Bait Bike program was devised by UCPD with assistance from the Campus Bicycle Committee (CBC), which has student, staff, and faculty members; UC Property Management; and student government. UCPD has also begun collaborating with the Berkeley Police Department, placing bait bikes on city property just outside the campus border, where many student bikes are stolen.

“Bike theft on campus is a big issue,” said former CBC chair Greg Haet, associate director of Environment, Health & Safety at UC Berkeley. “It’s something that deters from our mission. We’re trying to get more people to ride throughout the campus.”

Nadir Jeevanjee, a physics PhD student, has had two bikes stolen while at UC Berkeley, one from campus and one outside his house. A member of the campus bicycle cooperative BicyCAL, he was lucky to find a spare bike he could use in both cases. But most students lose their sole method of transportation when their bikes are stolen, said Jeevanjee, who helped develop and prepare the bait bikes.

The group looked at similar initiatives in other cities and on campuses such as Rice University’s in Houston, TX.

DeCoulode said UCPD will not reveal the exact kind of technology used in the program. Pegasus Technologies, which develops the system used in many vehicle-bait programs, combines GPS with radio frequency technology.

As bait-bike programs have gained traction, some cyclists have condemned the approach. In some cities, bait bikes are left unlocked or otherwise easy to steal. Critics — in San Francisco, for example —have said these circumstances can create a criminal out of someone who would not have otherwise thought to steal a bike.

That criticism does not apply to the UC Berkeley bait bikes, which are all locked, DeCoulode said.

“In no case are we enticing anyone, because they’re coming here with the intent, because they have tools with them to defeat the locks,” he said.

However, he said only two or three of the people arrested for stealing bait bikes were repeat offenders.

There is no “typical thief,” DeCoulode said. Only a couple of those arrested after the program launched were UC Berkeley students.

As UCPD continues the bike program, officers are planning to install similar tracking technology in other commonly stolen items on campus, such as laptops, DeCoulode said.

Jeevanjee said he would like to see the bait-bike program “move up the supply chain” to target people who buy and resell stolen bikes or parts as well.

Before distributing the bait bikes, UCPD conducted a trial run. Haet simulated stealing a bike to see how quickly the technology would work.

“I never got off campus,” he said.

Berkeley police hope bike registry will deter thieves (07.09.15)
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 (04.22.15)
Can Berkeley be the most bike-friendly city in the country? (05.09.13)

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Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...