Project 529 aims to cut bike theft by 50 percent in 10 years
When Connor Belisle moved into his new condo on Sept. 18, he used a cable lock to secure his bicycle to a fence in the backyard — an area he thought inaccessible from the outside. The backyard gate was padlocked and the only way for Belisle, a junior accounting major at the University of Oregon, to access the patio was by walking through the condo.
“I thought it was secure because I couldn’t even get back there,” Belisle said.
Six days later, a thief (or thieves) kicked down the gate, clipped the lock and rode off with his bike.
Belisle didn’t report the incident to the police. Since his bike’s serial number wasn’t registered with the University of Oregon Police Department, he figured they wouldn’t have been much help anyway; once a bike is recovered, it is often problematic for the police to return to its owner unless it has been properly registered. As a result, most recovered bicycles end up being auctioned off at police auctions or donated to charities.
To encourage students to register their bikes, and hopefully thwart future bike thieves, UOPD now employs an app called 529 Garage, produced by the Portland-based company Project 529. The app, which was adopted by UOPD for bike recovery protocol in April, streamlines bike registration into a five-minute process and brings bicyclists in on the fight against bike theft.
When a bike is stolen, the owner can send a notification to all fellow app users within a 10-mile radius, so that the maximum number of people can recognize and search for a stolen bike.
J Allard, 529 CEO and co-founder, was inspired to create this project after his blue Santa Cruz TRC mountain bike was stolen at a mountain bike race. After discovering his bike had gone missing, he sent out as much information as he could about his bike to his 35-person mountain biking team via social media. Within hours, thousands of mutual friends had seen the post. A few months later, someone alerted him that the bike was for sale on Ebay.
The number of bicycle thefts at UO in 2015 is relatively low: from January through October 2015, there have been 97 cases. It’s not clear if the app has affected the numbers, because UOPD is just now seeing an increase in registration, according to UOPD public information officer Kelly McIver.
The 529 app ensures that your bike’s make and model, year, color, serial number and photos are available for the UOPD, insurance agencies and the nearby community if your bike goes missing.
Allard’s goal: Cut North American bike theft in half in 10 years.
“It’s going to take time,” said Allard, the former senior vice president of Microsoft’s Xbox platform.
“Project 529 has been a way to get members of the community crowdsourcing and helping out other people with their stolen bikes,” McIver said.
“I realized there’s not a chance you’re going to get your bike back unless you have all the details you need in order to provide the police with a really good, accurate, complete description,” Allard said.
One of the main goals of 529 is to drive thieves off campus by educating students how to properly lock a bike in addition to registering. Allard believes that if every bike was registered and a part of the 529 Garage app, someone would spot the bike before it left the zip code.
“Locking is just buying time,” Allard said. “Every lock is defeatable.”
Rob Brunt is a constable for the Vancouver, B.C. Police Department, and he reached out to Project 529 after discovering the system had every aspect their department was looking for, only as he put it, “on steroids.”
“We want to restore the public’s faith in us. A lot of people don’t report their thefts because they go, well, what’s the point, the police can’t do anything,” Brunt said. “(Allard) has given us a tool where we can do something more than we were doing before.”
About 2,500 bikes are reportedly stolen every year in Vancouver, B.C., but Brunt believes those numbers are “grossly underestimated.” In 2014, Vancouver recovered 2,400 bikes, but were returning less than 4 percent of those bikes. They were looking for a system to help get those bikes back and reduce the number of bikes stolen.
The app launch was far more successful than either Allard or the Vancouver P.D. hoped. Within 10 days, 2,500 bikes were registered.
The biggest challenge the app — and crowdsourced crimefighting — faces is the fact that if not enough people use it, it loses a lot of its functionality.
“Ultimately, we are just a tool and it’s the community that has to make it work,” said Lara Ferroni, who co-founded the app with Allard. “If you care about your bike, you should register it.”
Ferroni knows the app won’t end bike theft, but it can help.
“If you can prevent 20 percent of bike theft just by having things registered,” Ferroni said, “and you can get 50 percent more bikes back to bike owners, that’s a win, we think.”
Belisle wishes he had registered his bike.
“It’s good to take extra precaution, but I didn’t do that,” he said. “I’m stuck walking to school now.”