San Francisco's Bait Bike Campaign

GPS locators to take thieves from handlebars to behind bars

Apr 24, 2014
Outside Magazine
Like most everything, San Franciscan regularly recycle bikes—just without owners' permissions.

Like most everything, San Franciscan regularly recycle bikes—just without owners' permissions.    nicsanchez8/ThinkStock

The San Francisco Police Department wants to put the brakes on the city's bike-theft problem. Hidden throughout the city are bait bikes—bicycles outfitted with GPS locators that tip off police to potential thefts in real time.

Rather than exploit the element of surprise, police have created a veritable guerilla campaign broadcasting the sting hoping it will get potential thieves to think twice.

SFPD has already printed out 30,000 bright-yellow stickers to hand out, emblazoned with "IS THIS A BAIT BIKE?" and a picture of someone behind bars. It introduced the campaign with a flashy Craigslist ad that speaks to the department's self-image.

The ad has since been flagged for removal, but Grist reporters managed to snag a screenshot:

If the thought of getting nabbed by skeleton bikers doesn't 'derailleur' your bike-theft plans, the SFPD is at a loss.   Photo: craigslist

San Francisco has historically been hit with more than 4,000 bike thefts annually, sometimes with only parts of bikes stolen. The GPS locators won't be able to track all bike parts if they end up in chop shops, but the goal is for police to mobilize and nab suspects before bait bikes travel far from crime scenes.

San Francisco is not the first city to employ a bait bike campaign. Departments around the country attest to their effectiveness, though universities have found that the larger the school, the less effective the campaign, and some argue that the campaigns don't target the real criminals—serial bike thieves who work for chop shops, of which San Francisco has quite a few.

SFPD has stepped up its bike watch since getting called out for negligence this past January. Bike theft in the city rose 70 percent between 2006 and 2012, with few recovered bikes actually making it back to their owners.