Bike Theft Prevention 101

The video begins with grainy footage of a college campus and an average-looking mountain bike locked to a rack. Several people mill about the area and one or two bicyclists ride past. A figure enters the frame. He walks towards the bike, looks around a bit, pulls out a small pair of clippers and easily snaps the cable securing the bike. The figure jumps on the bike and rides away. End of story? Not quite—somewhere nearby an officer responding to a text message is logging onto a computer. This was no ordinary bike. It was a bait bike.

Bait bike technology

Bait bikes, like the one in the scenario above, utilize GPS technology. Officers place a GPS unit somewhere on the bicycle and when it is taken from its location, officers are notified. An officer then logs onto a computer accessing a map of the area and follows the bike until an arrest is made. “When it moves or leaves a geofence, it will notify us,” explains Lt. Erik Swanson of the University of Minnesota (U of M) Department of Public Safety’s investigative unit. “We put a device on the bike, lock the bike up, as it is customarily locked up. We want it to be locked like bikes on campus will be locked up. We set a geofence around it. If the bike walks outside the fence, it will call home.” Officers can be notified via e-mail or cell phone. “We do it in the form of a phone text,” Swanson states. “Then we can go onto a website and start monitoring where the bike is moving. We have a number of officers that have phones that receive the text, and the dispatch center is capable of getting them as well. Dispatch will pull up the monitoring [to] view where it is moving. That’s how it works.” Most agencies utilize the GPS units in tandem with video cameras and other technology.

U of M began its bike bait program in 2010, having gotten the idea from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “[UW-Madison was] operating more than one bait bike and we reached out to them for what sort of product they were using,” explains Swanson. “We carried the idea over from there.” Currently U of M has two units it can deploy on campus. “We don’t believe that most of our bike thieves are students,” says Swanson. “Most are doing it for profit, not for transportation.”

University of California-Santa Barbara (UCSB) deployed its single unit in early 2011. The idea came through a partnership and talks with the Associated Students (AS). “We looked at an idea to combat bike theft,” explains Cpl. Matthew Stern, who just finished six months as the department’s bicycle safety officer. “We looked around the country for campuses with successful programs. The University of Wisconsin-Madison uses it successfully. [We talked] about getting a unit and decided to put together funding and purchase one.” At UCSB there are around 20,000 bikes on campus at any given time and in 2011, approximately 300 were stolen.

Cited as the inspiration for university programs across the country, the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison) began using GPS technology to track stolen bikes in 2008. UW-Madison states the idea came from frustration and its neighbors to the north. “A couple of our police officers got frustrated with continually taking bicycle theft reports and noticed there was a significant trend in the City of Madison,” explains Sgt. Aaron Chapin, UW-Madison Police Department. “They started to do some research and found there was an agency in Canada that employed a similar type of program.” UW-Madison has seen a 37-percent decrease in bike theft since the program began.

Initial costs & funding

UW-Madison’s program is funded under its crime prevention budget. The campus PD also partners with Budget Bicycles, a local bike shop that donates bicycles equipped with the GPS units. The department doesn’t have to pay for a bicycle unless it loses one. Chapin states the biggest cost to them was in initial research and man hours, while the cost per year came in under $2,000.

UCSB’s unit cost approximately $400 and requires a $40 monthly service fee. “We are looking at alternatives and purchasing more GPS devices, or finding something that is a little less costly,” states Stern. “I believe it would be more effective with more (units) out there.” He does admit resources might be an issue for many departments. “We bought a GPS to see if it was worth it. It has been. We’ve demonstrated it is an effective tool.”

Bike choice, deployment & recovery time

The purpose of the bait bike program is to catch those who prey on the campus community. Because agencies like the U of M believe most area thieves are stealing for profit and are likely not students, agencies deploying the technology put the GPS units on average bikes left in average locations under average conditions. “The bikes are consistent with what the population is putting out,” says Chapin. “We’re not putting out a $7,000 or $8,000 racing bike. It’s what a student, staff or faculty would typically have on campus. We rotate through having them locked and unlocked. We want to have it consistent with the bicycles we’re having stolen. We’re trying to target people who have been known bike thieves [not entice those who aren’t normally].”

UCSB utilizes bicycles that have become property of the state. “We can get creative because we have many bikes to choose from,” explains Stern.

U of M uses a “fairly average bike,” says Swanson. “That’s a discretionary thing—How nice of a bike are you going to have? Bike thieves look at a bike and [consider if] they could pawn it or sell it on Craigslist. The depreciation is pretty large. So, to them, a $1,000 bike might not be looked at differently than a $450 one.”

Since first deploying the bait bike, UW-Madison has tried to have the bikes out as much as possible during decent conditions. “We deploy it during the fall and spring because that is when our students are on campus using bikes,” states Swanson, referencing U of M’s program. “Summer, it is less. The battery will last about seven to 10 days depending. We leave it out for a week or so at a time. We don’t do it every single day.”

As far as recovery time, most agencies were able to get the bike back and arrest the thief within a short period of time. “When we have a bait bike theft, we would like to recover [the bike] within minutes of it being taken,” explains Chapin. “The purpose of making the arrest is we’re able to get the person who stole it instead of a secondary person who’s riding it.”

Spread the word & collect intel

The success of the bait bike program is two-fold: enforcement and education. “Our first year was the most successful from the apprehension/enforcement aspect,” explains Chapin. “Then it started to decline. People were really talking about it a lot. Thieves started talking to each other. Shortly after our program was launched, the City of Madison saw a significant decrease in its bike thefts also. There was discussion that our program impacted crime in their area as well.”

Swanson believes more arrests will lead to changes on campus. “If you have a high-crime area and police only come in to take the calls, people notice,” he explains. “Park police there and leave them there, people take notice. Hence the crime pattern will change. I think you could change the crime pattern if you consistently make arrests.”

Since deployment, UCSB’s bait bike has been stolen and recovered once. The recovery was a lengthy process because the device ended up in a residence. At the time, the department did not utilize video as part of its program. “Part of the brainstorming was determining how to utilize it,” Stern says. “It was a great learning device. We know now we need to put a video camera in the area and survey the area. It gives you a very accurate location, but without a look at the device itself we couldn’t know what the weaknesses and capabilities are.”

Another factor of enforcement is the intelligence value that comes from arresting the primary thief. “We will get to know the bike thieves,” says Swanson. “We’ve asked ultimately, where do [all the bikes] go? Many end up in pawn shops or on Craigslist, but we don’t recover most of the bikes that are stolen. If we were able to know who these people are, maybe we’d find out where the bikes are ending up. They aren’t going into thin air.”


The other element in enforcement is the deterrence factor. “I think the device’s most effective tool is theoretically deterrence,” says Stern. Swanson agrees. “As the program becomes more successful, throughout the criminal community this will be communicated,” he explains. “If they are consistently stopped on campus and they have never been caught before, they will become aware of how they are caught. At some point, they will say, I was caught at the university stealing a bike. They have a tracking device. That will cause a ripple effect.”

‘Our real culprit is cable locks’

On UCSB’s AS website, students can watch a video detailing the bait bike program. This video was part of the university’s educational component. Stern explains in his experience, bikes are not always treated with respect, and simply talking about the bait bike leads people consider some of larger issues involved in bike theft, like registration practices and locking methods. U of M’s program aims to teach bicycle riders the importance of choosing a good lock. “Our real culprit is cable locks,” states Swanson. “Generally thieves leave [bikes] with U-style locks alone. One or two bikes a year are stolen with a U-locks. [Bikes] with cable locks are stolen all the time.”

UW-Madison worked with both local and national media as part of its education efforts. “We get out into the community and talk to students, staff and faculty on campus,” says Chapin. “We’ve worked with the city police department to get into the off-campus housing areas. We’ve employed signs and stickers. We’ve done a lot of media work to get the news out that this program exists and is preventative and educational as opposed to enforcement. We see a lot of the bait bike stickers on student’s bikes. We’ve had some significant success.” Students from other universities have contacted UW-Madison’s police department asking them to contact their university to implement a similar program.

Many in the bicycle community don’t believe the police care about bike theft. The educational aspects of the bait bike programs have helped address this concern as well. “They don’t think bike theft is taken seriously,” states Swanson. “If you ride for transportation and you get to work and your bike’s gone, it’s a long trip home. Those people who use it for transportation are excited about it. They see you’re doing something about it.”

Tech-driven solutions

One of the reasons this tracking device based program has garnered community support is student expectation. “[The bait bike] ties in generationally with the students that are here,” says Swanson. “This generation of students is accustomed to technology solving problems for you. There is an IT solution. This is what technology can do for us. This is great.” UW-Madison’s students have taken this idea a step further by successfully applying for a grant to implement a bait laptop program as well. As students continue to expect technology to provide solutions, police agencies will need to keep up with the existing IT solutions.

All of these agencies plan on continuing their programs and even expanding. “While the bait bike program is focused on bike theft because of the name, we really want to focus on people who are preying on our community,” explains Chain. “If we can prevent someone from preying on our community, [we] can make our campus a safer place.”


Freelance writer Michelle Perin holds a master’s in criminal justice and criminology from Indiana State University and previously worked for the Phoenix (Ariz.) PD for nearly eight years.