If you want to see pure sadness, steal a poor student's bike.
A few weeks ago, my girlfriend had her wheels pinched from in front of her house, and she's since run through feelings of violation, fury and hope.
The hope lay in her determination to find the bicycle while walking through the neighbourhood, and miraculously, she found it last week. The brown Raleigh was locked to a post on the street. She knew it was hers because she'd recently had it fixed up with new parts. The guy who repaired it at the bike shop looked at it and agreed.
Like any good citizen, she called the police and explained she'd found the bike she'd reported lost a few weeks back.
When the cop arrived a couple of hours later, he basically admitted that, while he believed the bike was hers (it still had her unused lock attached), he couldn't do anything for her without a serial number.
He took off, leaving her wheelless and in tears, contemplating a vigilante midnight rescue mission.
So that's our system at work - but it's not really working.
For one thing, she was told reporting unique characteristics should be enough. Constable Victor Kwong, media relations officer for Toronto police, confirms that police don't have to have the serial number. "If you have some very definitive flaws and character traits, you can reclaim your bike."
Well, that didn't happen, and Kwong admits bike theft doesn't have high recovery success rates. "People don't keep much notation on their bikes and then don't bother reporting it. Also, a lot of higher-end bikes are taken apart."
Would registering the serial number have helped? Not that much, really. Thieves can change it or simply paint over it, explains Community Bicycle Network mechanic John Hanje. "The police consider bikes toys and don't take bike theft seriously. It's simply too hard to catch thieves and prove they've got stolen goods."
And even if you register your bike, you'll have to find it if it's stolen. "We don't have a specific division dealing with bike theft," says Kwong, revealing that the city's finest lack the resources or will to prioritize shutting down well-known stolen bike dealers and sketchy pawn shops.
"Until police go after the people who are reselling stolen bikes, they're just dealing with band-aid solutions," says Darren Stehr of Advocacy for Respect for Cyclists.
The city's cycling committee chair, Adam Giambrone, however, pleads limited resources. The police, he says, have simply been stretched too thin to deal with hundreds of pawn shops, but he hopes to see a crackdown on people selling stolen goods in the near future.
"[Police] are introducing a new system in pawn shops. This computerized system would allow police to look up items centrally. Right now they have to visit the store in person and review a notebook. You can imagine that would take some time."
In the midst of the gloom, however, U of T has managed to shine a little light. Constable Peter Franchi of the U of T police says the campus is introducing initiatives aimed at reducing the resale value of stolen bikes and catching some of the perps as well.
The first phase, coming into effect now, is a bait bike program involving U of T planting several GPS-equipped bikes around campus. "We have a pretty good idea that they'll get stolen," says Franchi. If the bikes are taken, U of T and city cops will track them with the help of a company called Nero Global Tracking and arrest the dirty thieves.
Nero president David Katz, who donates the tracking service and GPS receivers to police, says the system is already being used effectively in BC.
"Victoria police and UBC are using bait bikes, generators and kayaks. There's already been a 19 per cent reduction in bike thefts over 6 months." He adds that communities have also gotten involved by printing and distributing "This might be a bait bike" stickers.
If you want to install a GPS tracker on your bike yourself, however, you're in for a sizable financial hit. "The fee itself is around $30 a month. It's like having a cellphone in it," says Katz, who mentions that his company is hard at work developing a pay-per-use chip that could find your bike for a one-time cost of less than $100.
But that's more than most students pay for their bike in the first place, and that's where the second phase of Franchi's plan comes in.
"We want to introduce a new reporting program" at the university, he says.
Typically, you report a bike theft by calling the non-emergency operators. They then connect you with officers, who probably feel they have better things to do.
The U of T system improves on this greatly. Thanks to 24/7 online service, you can report your stolen bike from anywhere with little effort. This is still a standard registry, and satellites won't lead you to your bike via some fancy beacon, but not having to deal with the police switchboard feels much better.
U of T cops affix a bar-coded ID plate to registered bikes, and shop owners doubtful about a bike being sold to them need only go online to see its status. By that time, Franchi hopes, the victim will have reported the bike stolen, and any shopkeeper who isn't crooked can avoid taking part in the bike theft cycle.
"The registration [ID plate] takes 800 pounds of pressure to remove," says U of T spokesperson Mary Thring. "If [a thief gets] through that, there's a chemically etched tattoo that says, 'This bike is stolen property.' I think that would make it pretty undesirable to flog."
Franchi hopes Toronto will adopt the program. Giambrone would like this, too, but says the city will have to evaluate the success of the U of T experiment.
While you wait for that to happen, write down your serial numbers and file them. And if you happen to lose your bike, don't count on police just yet. Instead, browse through the pawn shops and take a stroll - and don't forget to pack your power saw.