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an orange background with an ebike with a question mark and an undone lock
The rise in valuable e-bikes may have changed bike theft in New Zealand (Image: Tina Tiller)

SocietyDecember 4, 2023

One simple trick to get more people riding bikes? Reduce the number being stolen

an orange background with an ebike with a question mark and an undone lock
The rise in valuable e-bikes may have changed bike theft in New Zealand (Image: Tina Tiller)

Bike theft tends to go up in summer time. What are bike advocates and the police doing about it?

It was a dark and windy night in Sandringham when Jessica Rose rescued the goat. Biking home from a work event, she saw cars careening across the road and heard the distressed cries of an escaped goat – an unusual scene in a central Auckland suburb. “I thought someone was going to crash, but no-one was getting out to help,” she says. She quickly parked her unlocked bike at the side of the road and ran onto the road to corral the goat, which she managed to tie to a lamp post. When she went back to get her bike it was gone. 

“I appreciate that it’s an unusual way to have your bike stolen,” the cycling advocate says now. The loss of her bike still stings. It had a roll up mudguard and sleek drop handlebars with reflective bar tape she’d bought from a company that has since gone out of business – lots of special things that made the bike feel like her own. “I had really personified it, it had a lot of sentimental value,” she says. Two years on, she’s replaced her bike and still loves to ride, but the new one isn’t quite the same.

Summer tends to be the most frequent time for bikes to be stolen in New Zealand, although hundreds of bikes are stolen each month. Police data shows that March 2023 had the highest number of recorded bike thefts in the last five years, with 438 cycles separated from their owners. That was the month after the Wellington police department found nearly 300 bikes among thousands of dollars of other stolen goods – a sign that thefts reported to police are a fraction of the real number of stolen bikes. 

“When the weather warms up and people are out and about we often see an increase in opportunistic types of offending [such as] thefts of bicycles,” says senior police sergeant Sam Hall in a statement. “Another contributor is unoccupied properties when people go on their summer holidays.” 

One significant contributing factor to the bike theft problem is the rise of e-bikes. While pushbike imports into New Zealand hugely outnumber electric bikes, e-bikes' increasing popularity means their overall value is now more than pushbikes', according to data from Stats NZ (although the data lumps together e-bikes with electric scooters and electric skateboards, e-bikes would be the most expensive items in this category). 

Maurice Wells, the owner of Electric Bike Team in central Auckland, says most weeks he has people coming in to replace bikes they've had stolen. He warns customers upfront that electric bikes are vulnerable to theft and recommends they get heavy D locks and make sure their bikes are insured.

While cycling appears to be growing in popularity, the corresponding rise in bike thefts is also a discouragement for many. Aucklander Harper* had her bike stolen in March this year, having locked it outside her son’s karate class and emerged to find it gone. While Harper has now borrowed a friend’s bike and purchased a more solid D lock, she’s reluctant to get back in the saddle. “It’s made me cautious – I feel the threat of bike theft everywhere.” 

a man putting a bike in a ping steel cage to lock it on a sunny morning
A Locky Dock, run by organisation Big Street Bikers, is a secure parking alternative (Image: Supplied)

Cycling was previously Harper's primary mode of transport, but the bike theft has restricted her movements in more ways than one. “I used to go swimming in the early mornings, and it felt safer to ride rather than walk through the park, but now I don’t want to.” 

Following the theft, she lodged a police report and spent several weeks combing social media for bikes that looked like hers. But while she talked to local shopkeepers and found the CCTV footage of her bike being stolen to send to the police, nothing came of it. She says it felt like the police simply lodged her report and moved on. 

Rose the goat-rescuer had a similar experience. “The police were just like, ‘you’ll never see that again, just add your name to the register',” she says. “They weren’t unhelpful – it just felt like there was nothing they could do.”

When bikes are found, the police do attempt to return them to their owners. But the proliferation of certain models and colours can make the job extremely difficult, says Detective Tim Leitch of Operation Trump Card, the police operation that recovered hundreds of bikes in Wellington earlier this year. 

a red accent on a grey background with a man in a flannel shirt locking his bike
Secure bike parking is one piece of the theft reduction puzzle. (Image: Getty/Tina Tiller)

To return the bikes, Leitch's department joined cycling Facebook groups and talked to local cycle networks, hoping to connect with those who'd had their bikes stolen. They managed to return 141 of the nearly 300 bikes, including 49 of the 95 e-bikes; the remaining bikes will be repaired and sold at auction. As a result of the operation, 12 people were charged and bike thefts in central Wellington went from about 25 a week to around five. “It’s [now] nothing like the scale we were seeing," says Leitch.

The frustration of those who have had their bikes stolen is completely understandable – but there are actions that can help. Some are obvious: nearly everyone spoken to for this article recommended purchasing a thick D lock, removing e-bike batteries while a bike is parked, and taking photos of your bike so it’s easy to identify. Better bike parking helps – bike stands are concreted to the ground to make them hard to move while thinner road sign poles can sometimes be lifted up. Leitch also recommends that people engrave their driver's licence number into their bike so it’s extremely identifiable. 

There’s another, simpler way to make your bike easier to identify. 529 Garage is a theft-deterrence system that many bike advocates say is one of the best ways to keep your bike safe. Founded in Vancouver, where rampant bike theft has become a huge deterrent to cycling, 529 Garage allows users to track stolen bikes through a unique sticker, called a shield. If a bike is reported stolen it will appear in 529 Garage social media and on police hotlists, and if someone spots it they can notify the owner via the website. Several 529 Garage-registered bikes were recovered in Operation Trump Card, and Leitch says these were especially straightforward to return as there was clear proof of ownership.

A shield costs $15, but many are available for free – councils and police have supported the project to some extent, with Auckland Transport buying 10,000 shield stickers to distribute, and police and councils in Wellington, Christchurch and Rotorua also supporting people to get their bikes registered. 

529 Garage’s biggest local cheerleader might be Bike Auckland board member Gabriel Gati, who says almost 20,000 local bike owners have registered on the site. That’s a tiny fraction of the overall number of bikes in New Zealand – more than 200,000 bikes are imported each year, and Gati estimates the country is home to a total of 4 million bikes. That said, bikes with stickers are likely to be regularly used, not sitting in a shed, and likely of higher value as the owners want to protect them. “In 10 years, I’d like to see 10% of all bikes registered on 529 – 400,000 bikes," says Gati. "Why not!”

In Vancouver, widespread use of the system helped reduce theft 30% year on year. After we speak, Gati sends me success stories: people whose bikes were found when they were returned to a shop for servicing or spotted on the street. “A lot of bikes are getting stolen – if all bike shops cross-referenced against 529, more thefts would be preventable,” he adds in an email. He’s very persuasive: after speaking to him, and imagining how devastated I would be if my own bike was stolen, I download the 529 app.

Gati sees improving bike security as a crucial factor in encouraging more cycling. A lack of infrastructure and safe places to ride can put people off, but so can the inconvenience and stress of losing a bike. “When people go somewhere on a bike – a movie theatre, a restaurant, a party – the paranoia that it will get stolen is powerful,” he says. “It’s important that people feel that [their bikes] are secure.” He believes widespread bike registration could be a cycling game-changer.

“If we want people to ride more, we need them to feel safe to do so.”

Keep going!