Two wheels and one big problem
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The sun is shining, the trees are budding and Winnipeg bike thieves are gearing up for another busy season of breaking locks and reselling stolen goods online.
Bicycle theft might seem like small potatoes when compared to more serious local concerns — such as an uptick in violent crimes and arsons — but it’s a nagging issue that commands few resources and sees little improvement year after year. After year. Stolen bikes have become an accepted, embarrassing fact of life in Winnipeg.
When Ai Weiwei’s towering sculpture of 1,245 silver bicycles was installed at The Forks in 2019, social media was atwitter with jokes about how long it would take thieves to run off with the 30-foot public art piece.
During last year’s mayoral race, candidate Rick Shone had his bike stolen minutes after pitching a plan to reduce bike theft — again, online reaction was swift. Few seemed surprised that a bicycle was snatched in broad daylight.
While bike theft is a chronic issue in cities across Canada, local efforts to curb the problem have been laughably ineffective.
A recent investigation published by the Free Press revealed that Winnipeg has a single bicycle recovery officer.
That lone employee is responsible for managing the city’s unclaimed bike inventory, creating promotional materials, responding to police reports, recovering stolen property and returning bikes to their rightful owner. Quite the job description for one person.
That there is only a single officer — in a city of 750,000 people — dedicated to addressing bike theft shows how serious the Winnipeg Police Service considers the issue. Last fall, officers reportedly laughed off a resident’s request to help thwart a bicycle robbery in-progress. The victim lost his wheels and his confidence in the system — a sentiment that can have dangerous consequences.
The same Free Press investigation profiled a mother and son who had taken to vigilante justice to recover the 13-year-old’s stolen bicycle. After spotting the wheels for sale online, the pair concocted a plan to meet with the seller and retrieve the goods. Things worked out for the pair, but vigilantism is risky business.
As many as 3,000 bikes are reported stolen in the city annually; although, the actual number of thefts is likely higher since small-scale property crimes are often underreported. Of that, roughly 400 bicycles make it back to their rightful owners.
Missing bicycles shouldn’t be the department’s top priority, but the city needs to reassess how it handles the issue.
The current system requires residents to pay $7.35 to register their bicycles with the city’s online database. In theory, registration makes it easier to reunite bikes with owners; however, only 10 per cent of lost bikes ever return home, making it clear the process isn’t working.
Vancouver and Edmonton have managed to increase reunions through free online bike databases and point-of-sale registrations. The city would also do well to offer more secure sites to lock up bikes, such as the bike corral in the parkade of the Millennium Library.
Winnipeg cyclists have enough to contend with between crumbling infrastructure, aggressive drivers, difficult weather conditions and a lacklustre cycling network. The risk of also having your ride swiped is another hurdle for citizens trying to engage in active transportation.
While biking is billed as an important pillar in the city’s forthcoming Transportation Master Plan, Winnipeg has kilometres to go before it can be considered an accessible cycling city. Addressing bike theft is key to that transition.
Winnipeg police don’t need to re-invent the wheel, but they do need to recognize its value. And come along for the ride.