Cameron Wallenfels, a senior at the University of Oregon, woke up one morning to find her bike had been stolen while she was sleeping. A single wheel remained, locked to the rack in front of her home. She never got the rest back.
“You have a connection with your bike,” Wallenfels said. “And then someone just takes it. … We’re just students — we can’t afford a bunch of bikes.”
Wallenfels is one of many victims of bike theft, a crime for which the University of Oregon, and Eugene in general, has developed a reputation. In 2014, 183 bikes were reported stolen to the University of Oregon Police Department, according to UOPD spokesperson Kelly McIver. For many students like Wallenfels, their bikes are never returned.
However, only 95 bikes were reported stolen to the UOPD in 2018. This could be a result of ongoing efforts by the UOPD, EPD and the community at large to mitigate bike theft — including bike security apps and a bait bike program to catch thieves. But the fact that many victims do not report their stolen bikes is another factor in the lower number, according to UOPD.
Bike Program Coordinator Kelsey Moore said that some victims of bike theft don’t report their stolen bikes because they aren’t sure if it will make a difference. “It’s a feeling of not being certain what the process is to report,” Moore said, “or being uncertain of if you reported, would your bike come back to you?”
Though the UOPD doesn’t know the exact number of stolen bikes they’ve recovered, McIver said in an email, “It is rare indeed.”
Sam Miller, the head mechanic for the UO Bike Program, once had a bike he reported stolen recovered in a matter of hours. The bike belonged to a French tourist who was staying with Miller at the time.
“At 7 a.m., the door to my house opened,” said Miller. “I assumed it was actually just a roommate. They came in, they grabbed a bike, and they left. It didn’t seem hurried. It didn’t seem rushed.”
When Miller noticed the missing bike, he assumed his guest had left for the day. But when he found the guest still home, he realized what happened and called the police
Miller said that because the bike was stolen from inside Miller’s home, the case was treated as breaking and entering. The police responded promptly and the bike was recovered within a few hours.
As an experienced cyclist, Miller also knew what to do right away. “What made us successful — where a lot of people are not successful — is that I knew what to do. I knew to report it,” Miller said.
Reporting bike theft is not always so effective. Bikes stolen from public racks are not given the same degree of attention and often are not recovered. “[The police’s] hands are essentially tied, especially if the bike is not registered,” Miller said.
UOPD Sergeant Jared Davis says that even if police recover a stolen bike, it’s difficult to return it without the serial number. They can search their databases using other criteria, but the results are usually overwhelming.
Despite the low recovery rate, Davis said police still encourage people to report their stolen bikes so they can gather information to prevent future thefts.
Davis added that he’s personally recovered three stolen bikes since he started working at UO in 2009. “You never know,” he said.
To combat bike theft in Eugene, the Eugene Police Department ramped up so called “bait bike” operations last June.
The EPD has between eight and 10 bait bait bikes of different styles and costs, EPD Sergeant Wayne Dorman said. During an operation, they’ll put out anywhere from one to four bikes in highly trafficked locations in Eugene.
“Bike theft cases themselves are very difficult to make,” Dorman said. Finding someone with a stolen bike doesn’t mean they stole it, or even knew that it was stolen, he added.
But new technology allows EPD to track the bait bikes remotely with GPS and catch bike thieves in the act.
“Sometimes they get stolen and sometimes they don’t,” Dorman said. The EPD makes around three arrests a month through bait bike arrests and most of them are repeat property crime offenders, he added.
Davis said UOPD provided assistance on some of the bait bike operations, adding that UOPD is considering investing in equipment for a bait bike program of its own.
While recovery is rare, there are steps students can take to prevent their bikes being stolen.
“If you lock with a U-lock, and you lock in an area where there is light and there are people, you will very rarely have a problem,” said Moore.
Both Davis and Dorman recommended using a U-shaped lock with a cable. Dorman emphasized the locks need to be used on the bike frame, not a wheel.
Additionally, there are registration programs with both the city and the university.
Eugene holds bike registration events, Dorman said. People can also register with the city at the EPD substation next to campus. They will get a sticker they can put on their bikes when they register.
Anyone affiliated with UO can also register to the 529 Garage program. Registration is required for anyone riding a bike on campus; however, Davis said that’s a measure to encourage registration and that punitive actions aren’t taken against those who don’t register.
The 529 Garage program is online and has a phone app. Registering a bike to the program allows the user to upload their bike’s serial number, photos and other important details. If a bike registered to the program gets stolen, the user can report it on the app and other users will be alerted.
Since 529 Garage was implemented in 2015, 2,390 bikes have been registered to the program. Of those bikes, 138 were reported stolen, and 11 were recovered.
Though the recovery rates are low, Davis urged people to continue using the app. “I don’t know that everyone takes full advantage of the program yet,” he said.