Peter Worden would like you to steal his bicycle. At times, when he’s feeling his most vigilante-esque veloing around Victoria, he’ll leave his Matrix commuter unchained and vulnerable, and surveil it from a distance, hoping to catch his would-be bike bandit in the act.
It wouldn’t be the first bike he’s had stolen in Victoria—and it’s not really his chosen bike, anyway.
“It’s kind of a bait bike,” he says.
His real bike, a prized Devinci Leo—“probably the nicest bike I’ve ever owned”—was stolen from outside his downtown Humboldt Street apartment earlier in May. And now he’s trying to get it back.
Worden knows he’s not the only one. A quick scan of “The Stolen Bicycle Avengers,” a Victoria-based Facebook group with over 6,400 members, turned up 24 calls for help related to missing bikes in the first three weeks of May alone. In a given year, the Victoria Police Department will see more than 2,000 stolen bicycle reports, or about five per day, spokesperson Bowen Osoko told the Times Colonist last year. (The police declined to provide updated numbers for this story.) So frequent are bike thefts in Victoria, Worden had already lost—and recovered—his Leo mere weeks before it was stolen a second time.
But as the City of Victoria spends $30 million on its cycling network, and the Capital Region District aims to curb vehicle emissions while growing its share of active transportation by 15% in the next 15 years, Worden’s stolen bike represents more than a nuisance; it’s also a major hindrance to getting more Victorians out of cars and onto bicycles.
‘More sophisticated’ theft
It isn’t altogether surprising that a region boasting the highest number of bicycle commuters per capita in Canada would also see its fair share of bike thefts. It’s not a new phenomenon, either. As far back as 2011, the City of Victoria’s Bicycle Parking Strategy touted the benefits of “secure bicycle storage” at major destinations.
But even in the three years that Todd Kalyniuk has helmed the secure bike parking committee of Capital Bike, a cycling advocacy group in Greater Victoria, Kalyniuk says he’s seen an increase in the level of sophistication around bike thefts in the Capital Region—from hacksaws to bolt cutters and angle grinders.
“[Thieves are] attempting to do a lot bolder things and defeating things that would have been very secure a few years ago,” says Kalyniuk.
Worden would know. When his Devinci was stolen, it was locked inside his apartment building’s code-access bike room. A security camera looks right at the door. Still, that didn’t deter his thief from grinding open the wrought iron bars and prying them loose enough to slip between, then making off with his bike and several others.
Peter Worden’s bike was stolen from his apartment building’s outdoor storage room. Photo: Martin Bauman / Capital Daily
“I don’t know what the city could necessarily do to make things more secure,” Worden says. “Like, have we got to make bunkers for these things or what?”
When bikes are stolen, recovering them is a whole ordeal unto itself. They’re easy to disassemble and reassemble into “new” bikes, they’re small and easily transportable, and there’s a robust market for used bikes with none of the registration hassle of a used car.
“The crooks don’t worry about borders and state lines and provincial lines. They move bikes quickly,” says Rob Brunt, chief outreach officer for Project 529, a bike registration service across Canada and the United States.
Few know BC’s bike theft problem better than Brunt. Before Project 529, he spent 30 years as a Vancouver police officer—and, for a time, was quite possibly North America’s only police officer dedicated full-time to bike theft.
It was 2014 when Brunt, newly entrusted with putting a dent in Vancouver’s bike theft numbers, came across the work of former Microsoft executive J Allard. The co-creator of the Xbox, Allard had been looking for a new challenge since leaving the computing giant in 2010—and, after his bike was stolen from the back of his truck, launched Project 529 in 2013 as a means of tackling theft.
“I thought, rather than building a billion-dollar company, why don’t we dismantle one that shouldn’t exist?” Allard told Macleans.
Brunt worked with Allard to bring a pilot of Project 529 to life in Vancouver in 2015—and subsequently lowered the city’s bike theft by 44 per cent. When a registered bike was stolen, owners could send an alert out to every Project 529 user. Recovered bikes skyrocketed. Soon, other police departments, including Victoria’s, took notice.
Last June, Victoria police switched their own bike registry over to Project 529. Since then, Brunt says 50 stolen bicycles have been recovered and returned to their owners—a number that continues to climb. But the system’s biggest benefit might well be its network effect: unlike the typical constraints of police jurisdictions, Project 529 opens the doors to recovering bikes that are shipped and sold in cities like Vancouver or Nanaimo, giving bike-theft victims a greater chance at reuniting with bikes that have already skipped town.
“All of us now work together,” Brunt says. “So instead of two cops looking for your bike, you’ve got the bike stores, you’ve got the cycling community… you’ve got thousands of people.”
But Brunt and other cycling activists know that this is only a piece of the puzzle. What’s needed are better preventative measures.
Facilities ‘definitely lacking’
Part of Victoria’s bike theft problem, according to Kalyniuk, is a consequence of infrastructure. While typical bike racks, when combined with a sturdy U-lock and thick cables, are often enough to provide security for short-haul trips—long enough to pick up a prescription, say, or grab a coffee to go—those same racks become significantly less pilfer-proof when leaving a bike for hours, or overnight. A 2015 study of 1,922 Montreal riders led by transportation researchers at McGill University found that of all hours when bike thefts occur, nighttime thefts were more common than thefts in the morning, afternoon, or evening, accounting for 37% of all reported thefts. While data is harder to come by with respect to how long bicycles are left unattended, and how that impacts the likelihood of theft, a 1986 study from the State of Victoria in Australia found that 60% of stolen bikes were left unattended for more than two hours.
Aidan O’Connell lost his Norco bike in July 2020 after a thief stole the Herald Street bike rack it was locked to. Photo: Aidan O’Connell.
Kalyniuk and his peers at Capital Bike identify this as the “biggest gap” in Victoria’s bike parking system: providing secure amenities for those who might want to head downtown for a meal, or a concert, or a movie, or an evening with friends, but worry about leaving their bikes unattended for too long.
“Those are probably the people that are least well-served at the moment,” says Kalyniuk. “The facilities that are available today are definitely lacking.”
One of the options transport experts recommend is having bike parking with round-the-clock security: Theft, it stands to reason, falls off when someone is watching. The City of Victoria says it has over 100 spaces like these in its five city-owned downtown parkades—but here, too, Kalyniuk notes drawbacks.
“There’s really very little signage, and so it’s not easy for people to find them,” he says.
More importantly, Kalyniuk adds, the security itself isn’t foolproof.
“There might be a security guard, but the security guard might have to go and walk around the parkade once every two or three hours,” he says. “And unfortunately, without constant supervision, somebody looking to steal a bike would just go and do the deed while the security guard is having a walk around.”
The case for storage lockers
One way to avoid the need for security guards is to build secure bike lockers instead of racks. Often designed from fibreglass shells that obscure the bike from view when stored, and with keypad or wireless app entry, they give riders the ability to safely store their bicycles without needing to share facilities with other bike-users or worry about the strength of their U-locks.
Storage lockers are more commonly associated with cycling cities like Amsterdam or Copenhagen—though even those are put to shame by Tokyo, which has an entire underground robotic storage system.
Simpler systems have become more common in Canada, too. In June 2021, TransLink announced it would be adding 71 bike lockers at six transit hubs across Metro Vancouver, accessible via app for $1/day, or 10 cents per hour. That same year, London, Ont. announced a year-long pilot project, introducing a total of 18 enclosed bike lockers at three locations across downtown. Toronto has a total of 234 bike lockers, available for $10/month.
“People want something where they don’t have to take the lights and bells and all that off of their bike in order to lock it up. And so if you have bike lockers where people can put the entire bike in the locker and have the locker closed and secured, that’s very convenient. And it’s also highly secure,” says Kalyniuk.
Bike lockers are both an old and new phenomenon in Greater Victoria. In partnership with BC Transit, Capital Bike has operated a suite of 30 lockers at the McTavish Exchange, Colwood’s Juan de Fuca Recreation Centre, and the Langford Exchange for close to 20 years, dating back to when the pre-amalgamated cycling group was known as the Greater Victoria Cycling Coalition. The Victoria International Airport rents out an additional four bike storage lockers.
But there are shortcomings to the current offerings. Capital Bike’s lockers are two decades old and operate on key locks as opposed to touchpads or apps, rendering them virtually impossible to share amongst riders—so, instead of being useful to multiple riders in a day, they might sit empty for hours, or even days or weeks.
More critically, none of Victoria’s secure bike storage lockers are downtown—where the bulk of thefts are reported, and where the City of Victoria has said it wants to transition to more active transportation.
Capital Bike applied for funding to modernize its bike storage offerings to an app-based locker share system through BC’s Active Transportation Infrastructure Grant Program, joining the Downtown Victoria Business Association, the Bay Centre, and Oak Bay Bicycles in a joint submission, but Kalyniuk says their application was rejected.
The case for bike valets
Just a few hours northeast and across the Strait of Georgia from Victoria, a remarkable bike theft turnaround has taken place. Nestled underneath the Granville Bridge and jutting out into False Creek, Granville Island had a reputation as Vancouver’s number-one cycling destination and its primary hub of bike thefts, until a novel approach by a cross-disciplinary group of riders changed everything.
B.E.S.T. valet attendant Katie Neal stores a bike on Granville Island. Photo: Hanna Hett / Capital Daily
Introduced in 2016 as a partnership between Granville Island, Project 529, the City of Vancouver, the sustainable transit nonprofit B.E.S.T., and a handful of other organizations, the Granville Island bike valet program has introduced free seven-day-a-week secure bicycle storage through the summers, and also added a bike lock loan program and bait bikes to deter theft. The bike valet program operates, in essence, like a coat check—except for steel and rubber instead of suede. Instead of locking your bike at a rack, you trade it for a claim stub and leave it with an attendant to watch over.
It’s proven to be remarkably effective. In just two years, reported bike thefts at Granville Island dropped by 70%.
“We took Granville Island from three bikes [stolen] a day to a bike a week,” Brunt says.
Of those remaining thefts, none involved the valet service.
Kalyniuk and others have been vocal advocates for a similar bike valet service in Victoria.
It wouldn’t be without precedent, either.
Car Free YYJ, an annual Father’s Day event that turns nine blocks of Douglas St. into an outdoor festival, has offered free bike valet service for years. Oak Bay Bicycles has also set up valet stations for Canada Day, the Tour de Victoria, and Rock the Shores. When Rifflandia last took over Royal Athletic Park in 2018, MEC set up a bike valet booth.
These work well because, as Kalyniuk says, “It’s really impossible for other people to come and take your bike.”
But pop-up bike valets don’t solve the problem for daily commuters. It’s something the City of Victoria, currently in the midst of a procurement process for a downtown bike valet service-provider, is looking to fix.
“We recognize that bicycle thefts have been a longstanding problem across the Capital Region,” says Sarah Webb, Victoria’s manager of transportation planning and development.
Since April, Webb and her colleagues at the City of Victoria have been taking proposals from potential pilot project operators to run a free, summer-long valet service in a secure, staffed area where people could leave their bikes, scooters, and strollers. The city’s 2021 budget also allocated $500,000 to public secure bike parking, which includes the bike valet system but also improvements to the Yates Street parkade, additional bike corrals, and a lock-borrowing program. The city also spends $15,000 each year on bike racks.
Webb says the city has taken cues from the likes of Granville Island and similar setups in Portland, Ore., adding the city already has the space designated at City Hall, near Centennial Square and at the intersection of the Pandora Avenue and Government Street bike lanes.
Victoria City Hall, as seen from Douglas Street. Photo: gehat via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).
While this and a bike lock loan project undergo procurement, cyclists can still expect a few improved bike storage options in the near future. In the next several months, Webb says the City of Victoria will be rolling out retrofits at the Yates Street Parkade to increase bike parking capacity, while also making the space more inviting to cyclists. The city is also investing in downtown bike corrals, which are bundles of standard bike racks strategically placed in highly visible areas.
What Webb says the city hopes to do is to “give more tools in the tool box to help people deter theft, but also improve their confidence while they’re parking bikes.”
An indicator of inequality
No matter how many bike valets, lockers, or corrals are built, the sobering reality of bike theft remains: theft, by and large, is an indicator of inequality.
In Greater Victoria, where the average home sold for $1.4 million in April, according to the Victoria Real Estate Board, and the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment reached $2,736/month in May, according to the latest Rentals.ca report, stolen bikes can also be seen as a symptom of a widening wealth gap. The 2020 South Island Prosperity Index, a measure of Greater Victoria’s standing relative to its peers, found income inequality had worsened from 2017-2020, and Victoria’s unhoused population amounted to nearly double that of the average of its peers.
“Part of the reason why bike theft is so prevalent is because the likelihood of being caught and punished is very low, compared to the amount of money you can get for a bike,” says Kalyniuk. The most Victoria police can do, he said, is charge an offender with possession of stolen property—and repeated studies have found the criminal justice system does little to deter behaviour.
Even Worden, as he desperately tries to retrieve his Devinci Leo, understands why someone might steal it.
“I hate having my bike stolen; I hate that everyone gets their bike stolen in this city. But I also see that there’s a lot of poverty, and it’s an easy crime,” says Worden. “It’s indicative of a larger issue.”