Safeguarding Britain’s bikes

Bikes have been the subject of crime for longer than living memory. Owners are forced to endure a relentless battle against theft, be it individual parts or entire rides. Forever a target, bikes need more than a simple lock to keep them with their rightful owners.

Launched in the late 1990s, BikeRegister sought to deliver exactly that, and today, the database serves all 43 local police forces throughout the UK, with around 800 searches made on a daily basis.

Parent company Selectamark purchased BikeRegister back in 2001 – back when it was a very basic database. “We really built in from there,” says James Brown, BikeRegister managing director. “Over the last 17 years, we’ve built a trusted brand which is used and recommended by the police and insurance companies.

The concept gained significant traction in 2012 when the Metropolitan Police and TfL began searching for a partner to create a database for a marking and registration scheme for bicycles. BikeRegister fought off eight other applicants to win the tender, and its database grew exponentially over the subsequent months, rising from around 100,000 to where it is today. “It provided a real springboard,” says Brown. “Met police began carrying out bike marking events at popular or busy locations such as train stations, London Bridge, Blackfriars… places where they would get a good footfall. For the first three years of that initiative, they were marking and registering upwards of 50,000 bikes per year in London.”

The catalyst for this growth, according to Brown, was the “epidemic” of bike theft at the time. “They were suggesting around 25,000 bikes were being stolen every year in London,” he explains. “The police acknowledged at the time that many victims of bike theft didn’t feel there was much point in reporting it. What would it achieve? It’s a hassle to report it, and they’re not going to get it back. Depending on who we spoke to, some police officers thought that the figure was around a third of the actual number being stolen.”

Such a large number of incidents, according to Brown, demonstrates that bike theft is not an opportunistic crime. “The majority of it is organised – criminals are treating it as a business. They go out and gather up as many as they can, and they either sell them through whatever means possible in the UK, or they ship them off to another country. Some of them are broken down into parts if they think they can make more money from it. Ultimately, I think it’s been far too easy for bike thieves for a very long time.”

Today, BikeRegister offers four solutions for the public to choose from – the first of which is basic registration, free of charge. “All they need to do is put in a frame number, which should provide you with a unique ID,” says Brown. “Unfortunately, not all frame numbers are unique. We make this clear during the sign-up process, and recommend using one of our three marking kits to safeguard properly against theft.” Brown continues: “The first of these is a highly-durable, tamper-resistant QR code, which we call the membership plus option. The middle option – the Permanent Marking Kit – allows the customer to etch a mark on the bike frame. It’s the same concept we offered back in the 90s before we purchased BikeRegister – marking your bike with a permanent ID.

“The third option is our UV Covert kit. Understandably, some people prefer not to have a visible mark on their bike, so we give them the ability to mark it invisibly. Generally, though, the police forces place our other, visible markings on the underside of a frame, so they aren’t particularly noticeable anyway.

“Everyone is going to have a differing opinion depending on what type of cyclist they are, what value bike they have, whether they’ve been a victim of crime before. That’s why we’ve got three options really; to cater for all types of bike users.”

BikeRegister’s ‘middle’ option – the Permanent Marking Kit – is currently used by around 90 per cent of UK police forces. As simple as the concept sounds, all 43 of those forces are separate entities, so BikeRegister has to approach all of them individually. “Naturally, some will have a bigger budget, and some will place more of a priority on cycle theft,” explains Brown. “The reason they choose this option is that it’s so simple for them. They don’t need additional equipment to read or scan the code – it’s just a simple unique ID they can read and run through the database. With our police app, they can usually get an answer within seconds, and at most, minutes.”

A bike checking facility is equally available to the public, with significantly less detail. “The public can check to see if any given bike is registered as stolen, which means buyers of second-hand bikes can ensure they’re not picking up a stolen bike,” states Brown.

The cutting of police budgets has undoubtedly proved a challenge for BikeRegister. Regardless of its relationship with the forces throughout the UK, each has its own budget. Unsurprisingly, these budgets are being cut year-on-year, with various initiatives suffering as a result. “The number of kits we’re providing to forces has likely fallen, but they’ve seen crime spike again,” says Brown. “It’s not a one-hit fix: they spend some money and can appreciate the rewards moving forward. Clearly, they need to continue their efforts in order to maintain reductions in theft.”

Rather than any subscription-based model, BikeRegister offers its service at a one-off cost. Moving forwards, Brown wants retailers to get more involved and take responsibility to aid consumers in protecting their rides. “If we could build in registration from point of sale, that would be our ideal scenario,” he says. “I’ve had meetings with people in government who are in agreement with that that getting it done at the point of sale is the logical place for it to be done, so there’s strong backing for it. I think that’s how we’ll be able to move even further ahead in terms of the number of registrations on that database – continuing with our police work.

“Every year we hold a cycle crime conference in the West Midlands where we invite all UK police forces along for the one-day conference to share knowledge and experience best practice regarding methods to reduce cycle theft,” Brown continues. “This is not just pushing the BikeRegister message of marking and registration, but it’s also around locking and secure cycle parking. It’s a really valuable conference that the police can come to at no cost, so we put that on every summer. This year will be our fourth event.”

As with the rest of our industry, BikeRegister’s main focus will remain in retail. “Over the last four to five years, we’ve had really positive talks with both larger retailers and smaller independents,” says Brown. “They all recognise the benefit of marking bikes at the point of sale, but up to this point, it’s been very difficult to push it over the line and get it integrated into their business processes. I’m hopeful that over the next 12 months, we’re going to going to see some successes there.”

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