Should you ‘register’ your bicycle with the city?
As part of a joint effort between Philadelphia’s 17th Police District and the South of South Neighborhood Association, there’s going to be an event this weekend at 22nd and Catherine Streets, from 9am to noon, to register your bicycle with the police department.
But why would you do it? Simple, so they say: Because chances are, someone, at some point, will try to steal your bike and maybe sell it or use the parts or keep it for their own. Ask longtime Philly bicyclists and a pattern begins to emerge: Lots of us have had bikes stolen from our backyards, alleys, from bike racks or fences. It’s a reality of living in the city.
“Bike theft is almost like a right of passage if you’re a bike rider in town,” says Andrew Dalzell, SOSNA’s programs coordinator. “Your wheels at least, if not your whole bike, and you feel sort of helpless about it. We’ve heard a lot about it at our PSA [Police Service Area] meetings.”
From those meetings came an idea. That district’s police department had been registering bicycles by etching a number into each voluntary vehicle, and keeping written, paper records for several years. Such a tactic would help police identify the owner of recovered bikes. But is it working? And does registration make a difference?
In a brief investigation on the matter, which will be part of a much larger piece I’m working on, the answer is a resounding … maybe.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: Huh? Didn’t they try this once before?
Yes, they did! (Sort of.) A City Council proposal was floated back in 2010 that would have made all bicyclists attain a license plate of sorts, and register their vehicle that way. The proposal died. And the recent, ongoing effort to register your bike with the 17th District Police District, if you live there, is completely voluntary.
A few years back, according to Dalzell, the 17th District suggested South of South build a website to keep track of the bicycles reported stolen, and those found in the area, based on the police’s own paper trail. “They said if we can make this work, we could bring it to the entire city,” he says.
The website they set up was a small registry on their own site (southofsouth.org) and asked that those participating put their own name, address, phone number, email, make of bike, color of bike, manufacturer’s serial number, gender of the bike, identifying marks or accessories and, if they chose, an uploaded photograph.
Then they’d have to bring it to the police station to prove it was theirs. Of course, it’s a Pilot program that’s been going on and doesn’t cover the entire South of South neighborhood, just the part that covers the 17th District: Lombard to Moore, Broad to the Schuylkill River.
But still. About 200 bikes have been registered so far, says Dalzell. And they’re hoping more will hop on this weekend.
“The main goal is to keep down bike thefts and be able to recover in the unfortunate event that it does get stolen,” says 17th District Community Relations Officer Freddie McCrea. “Hopefully, the bike doesn’t get stolen. But if it does happen, it makes it easier for us to get it back to the proper owner if it does happen.”
How bad is Philly for bicycle thefts? That depends on who you talk to. But as of 2008, the makers of U-locks, Kryptonite, put at us number one in the country!
So it was no shock on March 28, 2012, the Major Crimes Unit of the Philadelphia Police Department held an open house at a garage on Macalester Street and Whitaker Avenue, offering the rightful owners of at least 50 bicycles to claim what was rightfully theirs.
Those 50 bikes had been found during a single arrest on the 2200 block of West Lehigh Avenue. Those bikes hadn’t been etched with a number, and therefore couldn’t be identified save for the honor rule. Or, in some case, the bikes were still attached to locks and chains which could be unlocked.
Asked whether a registry is a good idea in Philadelphia, Bicycle Coalition of Philadelphia Research Director John Boyle doesn’t see why not.
“I think it’s all pro,” says Boyle. “First thing it does is, it just increases the rate of recovery—which is very low right now. And the better chance you have at recovery, the better chance you have at prosecutions and to break up theft rings.”
While neither the police, SOSNA nor the Coalition can put an exact number on the rate of recovered bike post-theft, all agree it is very low. None of those I spoke with could point directly to a bicycle that had been registered, stolen, then recovered.
But all would like to see the registry idea replicated citywide.
“We’ve had flare ups of districts where they tried to start [a registry] but there hasn’t been any momentum to create a singular database,” Boyle continues. “We’re trying to see what’s out there right now. The larger the geography of this integrated network expands, the better.”
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