Laura Fortey thought she and her partner did everything they could to protect their bicycles.
But last weekend their bicycles were stolen from a gated parking garage in their Kitsilano apartment building in Vancouver even though they were locked to a bolt on the wall.
“I was quite shocked it was taken from right under my nose,” said Fortey.
And their story isn’t unique.
Despite a focused effort by local law enforcement to reduce thefts, Vancouver continues to have the highest rate of bicycle theft per capita out of any major city in Canada, according to data compiled by CBC News.
Thanks to the city’s climate and bike culture, an influx of new bikers during to the pandemic, and owners who don’t take the necessary precautions to keep their bikes safe, experts say Vancouver is a city where bicycle thievery thrives.
Fortey’s raspberry pink cruiser — she had searched high and low for a step-through bicycle that would allow her to bike with a dress — and her boyfriend’s gold vintage 10-speed road bike totalled about $1,300 in value with the accessories included, she says.
“It takes time to find a bike you like and to have that taken away from you … it’s just frustrating and sad,” said Fortey, who biked to work and rides for both exercise and fun.
And since they were taken from a secured area, she wonders what she could have done differently.
“What is the next option? You just don’t have a bike? Or you resort to the fact that it will probably get stolen, so you just have a crappy bike?” she said.
Highest number of thefts per capita
In Vancouver, 2,115 bicycles were reported stolen to the Vancouver Police Department in 2020 — although officers say more thefts were never reported.
That means 334 bicycles were stolen last year in Vancouver per every 100,000 people.
While more bikes were stolen in cities with larger populations like Toronto (3,838) and Calgary (3,284), when broken down per capita, it is clear that Vancouver still sees the highest rate of thefts.
Bike thefts down 40% since 2015
No one at the Vancouver Police Department is more aware of the unique challenges Vancouver faces when it comes to bicycle theft than Const. Rob Brunt, the force’s bike detective — the only one in Canada, a fact Brunt points out proudly.
And he’s the man widely responsible for helping reduce bicycle thefts in Vancouver.
Since 2015, bike thefts have dropped almost 40 per cent. Brunt says a large part of that has to do with the introduction of a program called Project 529, where cyclists can register their bike’s serial number.
But still rates are high.
Unlike most Canadian cities, the Vancouver Police Department say people ride their bikes in Vancouver year-round offering thieves more opportunities to steal. As well, it says the local government committed heavily to cycling infrastructure, which has, as planned, increased the number of people cycling. And more and more people have taken up biking during the pandemic.
Brunt says bicycle thefts are difficult to solve because they’re one of the only modes of transportation without vehicle identification numbers [VIN]. Normally, police can look up the VIN and match the stolen property to its owner. With bicycles, it’s not that easy.
“The best we can do is hope for a serial number [on the bike],” said Brunt. But most cyclists don’t know their serial number, which makes it “nearly impossible” to return stolen bicycles to their owners.
“How do you prove something belongs to somebody if they have no proof of ownership?” he said.
And Brunt says many people don’t end up filing a police report.
Quick online sales
In Vancouver, most stolen bicycles end up on online marketplaces like Craigslist and Facebook, he said. Online forums have long complained of alleged chop shops in the city where bikes are reassembled into untraceable frankenbikes ready to be sold.
Again, police are limited in what they can do.
“We just can’t walk up to somebody and go ‘my spidey sense says that’s a stolen bike,’ ” said Brunt. “We have to work within the guidelines of the law.”
During the summer, Brunt says most bikes are stolen from the street, but as the weather turns, the thefts move indoors to bike lockers and, like in Fortey’s case, garages.
Brunt suggests owners invest in a good lock, take pictures of their bikes, never leave their bikes out overnight and register their bikes.
Though upset by the recent theft, Fortey says she will buy another bike.
“Maybe I’ll get a bike that’s not as nice,” she said with a frustrated laugh.
And when she makes that purchase, she plans to register the serial number.