IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Can Bike Registries Help Police Solve More Thefts?

Online bike registries are partnering with law enforcement to help police recover stolen bikes — not only traditional cycles but e-bikes as well. How do the programs work, and what is energizing them?

A person riding a red bicycle on a cobblestone street as seen from behind.
Photo from Shutterstock
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
As more cities beef up bicycle infrastructure and promote e-bikes, groups fighting the theft of those two-wheeled vehicles are working more closely with police and building up a relatively young area of public safety technology.

No one will mistake online bike registries — typically operated by members of tight-knit communities of people dedicated to greener modes of transit — as major, profit-driven players in government technology.

But they have a solid role to play as U.S. bicycle sales continue to grow.

That’s in part from a pandemic bump in cycling interest, and also because police don’t always have many resources to devote to stolen cycles.

Up to 20 million bikes are sold in the U.S. annually — a figure that keeps growing — and perhaps 2 million are stolen each year, according to some of the latest statistics. The rise of e-bikes, meanwhile — an estimated 500,000 were sold in the U.S. in 2021 — can present even more lucrative targets for thieves.

“E-bikes are a different proposition,” Mike Bang, COO of Project 529, an online bike registry, told Government Technology. “They are heavier, and people who ride them to work cannot fold them up or bring them up to (the office).”


Those stolen items, in turn, can fuel other crime, deter victims from cycling again and put pressure on law enforcement to develop and deploy theft prevention tools.

That’s one reason why police, along with universities, turn to online bike registries.

Among the most prominent and business-oriented of those organizations is Project 529, which works with more than 400 public safety agencies, colleges, bike clubs and shops. The Costa Mesa Police Department in Orange County, Calif., recently decided to work with the registry, following the lead of nearby agencies.

“There is a network where you can tell others around you and issue a missing bike alert if your bike has been stolen,” police department spokesperson Roxi Fyad recently told reporters. “Not only do you have a network of police departments and registered bikes, you have a way to utilize that network on your own.”

The registry can trace its origins to 2011, when a bike belonging to J Allard — who made his name as a technology executive at Microsoft, launched the Xbox and helped lead GoFundMe — was stolen. With help from his professional network and the Seattle Police Department, he created a company focused on reuniting owners with their bikes and deterring thieves.


He was able to bring aboard such peers as Bang, who had held a variety of tech-focused jobs in California. Bang, as does many people in the world of online bike registries, downplays the profit motive of working in this part of the tech world.

“At this point in my career, I’ve done a lot of things, and now I want to do something good for the world, something more positive,” he said. “People are in this for the passion of making the planet a better place.”

Project 529, like similar operations, has a few basic components: The online and mobile platform that allows owners to register their bikes and their serial numbers, and post photos and data about lost, stolen or found cycles. Police also can use the registry, of course, starting with a free trial. Insurance companies represent another market.

Project 529 sells not only T-shirts and other “schwag” but so-called shields — weather-resistant decals with unique codes — that bike owners can put on their frames and are designed to warn thieves that the bike can be tracked. Bang likened those decals to automobile vehicle identification numbers, or VINs.


Project 529 might be one of the most high-profile online bike registries operating now in the U.S., but it’s certainly not the only one.

Bike Index takes a similar approach, though its outlook and methods differ, at least according to Bryan Hance, a cyclist who co-founded the nonprofit in 2013.

The organization says it has nearly 1 million cataloged bikes, 1,500 community partners and “tens of thousands” of daily searches. It boasts of having helped recover more than $21 million worth of stolen bicycles.

Bike Index, which takes donations, also sells what Hance calls a “law enforcement dashboard” that includes registration and back-end access to data, along with other metrics and tracking tools. Colleges, universities and hospitals also can buy those services.

Hance, though, says he has a more cavalier approach to this work than do his peers, telling Government Technology that he is into “bad guy chasing” and has worked with others to repossess bikes and investigate theft investigations.


Police turn to registries because they can provide a more efficient way of dealing with and deterring bike theft.

Madison, Wis., home of the University of Wisconsin, a famously bike-friendly town, shows why.

According to documents provided by the city to Government Technology, the city back in 1972 enacted a $1-per-year bike registration program, via which owners received a bike license plate meant to ease the process of solving thefts. The registration price eventually increased to $10 for four years and brought in an average of $20,000 annually.

But registration income didn’t bring in enough money to cover decals, program advertising and labor. Not only that, but only about 12,000 bikes were registered, owners and bike shops reported little benefit from the program, and residents complained that the online registration program was hard to use.

As well, the requirement to register children’s bikes proved unpopular and “burdensome” in a liberal city that puts a high priority on equity, according to those documents.

Madison decided to switch to the “promotion of a free, national program (that) would allow for the reclassification of the current Bicycle Registration position to one better aligned with the goal of improving walking and biking” in the city, according to the documents.

Now Madison promotes Project 529 via its city website.

“There are no plans to bring back our registration program as we believe a national registry is more effective,” Colleen Hayes, Madison’s pedestrian and bicycle outreach specialist, told Government Technology via email.
Thad Rueter writes about the business of government technology. He covered local and state governments for newspapers in the Chicago area and Florida, as well as e-commerce, digital payments and related topics for various publications. He lives in Wisconsin.