"Bait bikes," rigged with GPS-tracking technology, are popping up on college campuses across the nation in an effort to reduce bike theft, though the results have been mixed.
(Photo: David De Lossy, Getty Images)
The National Bike Registry and campus police say bicycle theft is the No. 1 type of property theft on college campuses
Tulane's bait-bike program has decreased bike thefts from three to four per week to one or two each month
Unlike smaller universities, larger ones said they have had a more difficult time managing their bait programs
The FBI estimates that bicycle thefts total $350 million in the USA each year, at an average cost of $250 per bike. For college students pinching pennies, that's a lot of money to lose — and the National Bike Registry and campus police say bicycle theft is the No. 1 type of property theft on college campuses.
To reduce this problem, university officials across the USA are placing bicycles around campus to attract bike thieves. Similar to bait-car programs, the "bait bikes," rigged with GPS-tracking technology and placed in prime locations around campus, have led to a decline in bicycle thefts and led to more arrests on campuses such as Arizona State University, Tulane University, Winthrop University, the University of Wisconsin - Madison and the University of Texas - Austin.
Tulane's bait-bike program has decreased bike thefts from three to four per week to one or two each month, said Jon Barnwell, superintendent of police at the school.
Barnwell started a bait-bike program four years ago at North Carolina State University that helped cut bike thefts on campus in half. He said that part of the program's success was because it publicized the use of bait bikes. He has done similar things at Tulane, putting posters around campus that read, "Can You Spot the Bait Bike?" along with other slogans.
Winthrop University in South Carolina has one of the most successful campus bait-bike programs, reducing bike thefts by 75%. Winthrop police chief Frank Zebedis said this is because they make the bait bikes an easy target for thieves.
"A crook is going to take the path of least resistance," Zebedis said. "We put the bikes on campus the same way students do, but we make them easier to steal."
Unlike smaller universities, larger ones said they have had a more difficult time managing their programs.
UW-Madison, one of the first universities with a bait-bike program, started using the bikes in 2008. Now that word has spread about the program, the university is fighting thieves who locate and remove the bikes' GPS devices.
"We're waiting for newer technology that would help conceal the GPS units better, making our efforts more successful," said Marc Lovicott, public information officer and communications specialist at the UW-Madison police department. "In fact, our officers are getting creative on their own by working with existing technology, but configuring things differently, to see if we might be able to better hide the GPS units."
Arizona State University has the highest enrollment of any four-year university in the USA, with more than 160 bike racks and between 10,000 and 12,000 bikes on campus each day. Jim Hardina, assistant chief of police at ASU, said that having only two bait bikes makes the likelihood of one being stolen "like finding a needle in a haystack."
To increase the chances, Hardina said they determine which situations would provide the best opportunity for theft by doing a crime analysis of the likely locations and times for a bike to be stolen.
Hardina said another problem on a large campus is being unable to reach the thief before he or she gets off campus, which delays arrests.
"In one instance, we couldn't get to the thief," Hardina said. "The GPS turns off when the bike isn't moving to save battery, so the tracker shut off. Two days later, it turned on again and we tracked it down to a pawn shop, then we traced it back to the thief and made the arrest."
The University of Texas - Austin, located in one of the most bike-friendly cities in the country, has caught only 80 bicycle thieves since its program began in early 2011. However, there have been recent successes. Fifteen arrests were made between January and April of this year, said UT police officer Ruth Jasso. Some of these were repeat offenders, she said.
"I personally arrested two notorious bike thieves last week, and we've had at least five regulars arrested," Jasso said.
Campus police say students can keep their bicycles safer by investing in high-quality locks, using multiple locks, registering bicycles with campus law enforcement and securing bikes to designated racks rather than to signs or posts.
Katey Psencik, USA TODAY Collegiate Correspondent