An interview with Bike Index: The Biggest Bicycle Registry

Lily Williams from Bike Index

We all know that our bikes will almost certainly be stolen at some point. And it’s an indisputable fact that recording bicycle serial numbers with a registry scheme vastly increases the chances of getting them back when they are stolen.

But very few us actually bother to register our serial numbers. In fact, I would venture that the vast majority of us don’t know our serial numbers, many of us wouldn’t know where to find them and some of us won’t even know they exist at all!

If we want to seriously reduce bike theft then this needs to change. Bike registration needs to become a routine step in every new bike purchase. And cross-checking the serial number should become a routine step in every second hand bike deal.

Bike Index is the largest and most widely used bicycle registration scheme in the world and is actively trying to encourage such changes.

I caught up with Lily Williams the Communications Director at Bike index to find out more about what they do. Bryan Hance (BH), the founder, also made some contributions which I’ve marked in blue.

First of all, thanks for taking the time to speak to me. I’m a big fan of Bike Index and it’s the number one recommended registration scheme on The Best Bike Lock.

But when Bike Index launched in 2013, there were already plenty of other bike registration schemes. Why did you think we needed another?

The fact that there are so many bike registration schemes is exactly the reason for Bike Index. The goal of Bike Index is to be the single most effective, consolidated resource for registering bikes and for recovering stolen bikes. In just a few short years we’ve become the most widely-used bicycle registration service in the world, which is a testament to our user experience and effectiveness. Bike Index is universal, meaning that anyone, anywhere, can register their bike (for free). Their registration will exist forever, no matter where they live.

Bike Index is universal, meaning that anyone, anywhere, can register their bike (for free). Their registration will exist forever, no matter where they live.

In the typical local registration schemes you see around the country, registrations are basically void if the bike owner moves. When they move, they’ll have to pay another registration fee to register in another system that will be unable to help them if their bike is stolen and taken to another city for sale. We see a lot of bikes that are stolen and fenced elsewhere. On the contrary, a Bike Index registration will follow the cyclist no matter where they live. Bike Index’s goal is to connect all of the organizations that are trying to register bikes and get everyone to register their bikes in one cohesive and collaborative system, and of course, remain free and easy to use for all cyclists.

And then Bike Index has the added element of recovery. You register your bike in Bike Index in the hope that if it gets stolen, you can leverage our community of almost 116,000 people and over 500 organizations to keep an eye out for your stolen bike. We have far and away more stolen bike recoveries – and partner organizations – than any other registration service.

We have far and away more stolen bike recoveries – and partner organizations – than any other registration service.

I sometimes get the feeling that the dozens of different schemes is actually counter productive, with too much choice causing paralysis among cyclists. What do you think?

I completely agree. You see this across the board. One classic and well-known example of this is Michael Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma” which has nothing to do with bikes, but offers a nice parallel. In the novel of the same name, Pollan details how food consumers in the U.S. are overwhelmed with the number of food choices. With 20 different jam options all purporting great taste and flavor, the grocery shopper is overwhelmed and buys nothing at all.

With bikes, the huge number of registration schemes could paralyze users into not registering at all. Non-registry is worse than registering in a small registration system with purely local reach. Eventually at Bike Index we hope to be the world standard for bike registration. With one obvious registration choice, we’ll have more registrations, and exponentially more stolen bicycle recoveries.

Why do you think so few people bother to register their bikes?

I think most people fail to register their bikes because they don’t even know it’s an option. Many local registries are buried on infrequently-visited web pages or don’t exist online. Many registration systems also require people to come into a police station or office to fill out their registration, which is a massive deterrent. No one cares enough to do this until their bike gets stolen, and by then it’s too late. It also takes time, money, and personnel to manage a registration system. Typical organizations that might host a registry – a police department or advocacy group – are often tight in all three of these things.

Many registration systems also rely on stickers. You register your bike for $15, get a sticker to put on your bike, and then your bike gets stolen and the sticker is the first thing the thief removes. People have little faith in a registration’s ability to do anything, and they don’t want to pay for something that does nothing. Add to this yet another deterrent: the mandatory registry. People get tickets for not being in a registration system that they didn’t even know existed, and they resent bicycle registration as a whole.

We allow people to register their bikes post-theft.

Bike Index offers a number of solutions to these issues. First and foremost, we provide a cheap and easy solution for individuals as well as organizations to register bikes without increasing the need for a staff person. We allow people to register their bikes post-theft. We have options to alert local pawnshops of the bike’s theft through our partnership with LeadsOnline, and we incentivize people to report thefts to the police. We rely on serial numbers and photos of the bike for identification, not stickers. And we’re not mandatory. We’re a free service for use by anyone and everyone. We have a great website and are active on social media, all in the hopes that people will find out about us and use our system. We also just started a new Bike Index ambassadors program to provide resources for local cyclists to spread the word and encourage people to register bikes in their cities of residence.

There’s mandatory registration?! Can you explain a bit more about this?

We see a number of municipalities and universities who try to make a bike registration mandatory. Then they sort of enforce the rules but only sometimes and seemingly arbitrarily, so people come to expect that they don’t actually have to register their bikes, and they don’t, but then they’ll get a ticket out of the blue for parking their bike on campus or around town without a registration sticker. Of course, tickets, and mandatory registrations that you have to pay to enter are barriers to transportation for many communities that rely on bicycle for transportation. And not knowing whether or not you’re going to get a ticket for parking on a public bike rack is frustrating.

In the past people thought cops were using the bike licensing thing as a way to harass homeless and low-income riders.

[BH] There was definitely some anti-registration sentiment – mostly in CA I think – against mandatory bike registration as some folks viewed it as a tool that was used to aim enforcement more at marginalized folks, and having nothing to do with keeping bikes safe. I think this last came up when talking to Oakland CA, where the police/community relationship was pretty strained … like in the past people thought cops were using the bike licensing thing as a way to harass homeless and low-income riders. That, plus the arbitrary enforcement thing Lily mentioned, plus other things like not equating bikes with cars re: making things mandatory, tends to lead to a knee-jerk reaction from many cyclists when the term “mandatory licensing” shows up.

In your experience do bike shops routinely register bikes for their customers? And if not, why not?

In our experience, most bike shops are interested in registering bikes for their customers, but they don’t know of a good registration service to use, and then they assume that registering bikes for their customers will be a burden for their staff and require training time. Most bike shops are open to pointing their customers in the direction of a registry but not many of them want to take a bunch of time to register bikes.

Bike Index makes this easier by offering point-of-sale integrations for bike shops. All of us at Bike Index have worked in bike shops. And we’re all avid cyclists, so we know what shops and cyclists might be looking for in a registry. With these point-of-sale integrations, such as our partnership with Lightspeed Retail, all the shop has to do is link their point-of-sale system with Bike Index, and then every bike that they sell will automatically be added into Bike Index (unless the customer opts out). This means that bike shops can offer Bike Index security to their customers, which might encourage a customer to buy a better bike that more aptly fits their needs. The customer also doesn’t have to do anything to register their bike. They don’t need to know how to find the serial number, and they won’t go home and forget the shop’s recommendation that they register the bike. Bike Index takes care of everything with one click.

What more do you think the police and government could do to protect us from bike crime?

Bike crime tends to be low on the priorities list of many (but not all) police and government departments, not because it’s unimportant, but because it’s seen as unimportant when compared to more immediately tangible issues such as safety. As I mentioned before, many of these agencies are short on resources. But if these agencies realized the benefit of reducing bike crime, they might be more invested in proactive measures.

Bike crime can cost a municipality hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars, depending on the region in question. Bike crime decreases commuting by bike. Bicycle commuting, as we all know, is immensely beneficial for health and for the environment. Cycling is also a highly accessible transportation mechanism for low-income communities and bike crime decreases this resource. In addition, civilians often try to take bike crime matters into their own hands, which actually does end up becoming a safety issue. If this information were more readily available and apparent to police and government bodies, then I think these organizations would be more apt to invest in reducing bike crime.

A huge way police and government agencies could protect us from bike crime would be to crack down on online selling platforms.

A huge way police and government agencies could protect us from bike crime would be to crack down on online selling platforms. We see thousands of stolen bikes being sold online and often people will report these bikes to law enforcement with no response and no punishment for the sellers/platforms whatsoever. This leads cyclists to take matters into their own hands, which can be dangerous. Of course, if more police and government bodies managed a Bike Index registration system and took more interest in encouraging their constituents to register, then they would be closer to the needs and interests of their cycling communities and better able to decrease bike crime with our consolidated registration system.

The vast number of stolen bikes for sale online is clearly a massive issue. Why do you think the platforms are so reluctant to deal with it themselves? For example, by requiring every bike to be listed with its serial number.

Or maybe this wouldn’t actually work as sellers could make up the serial numbers! Is there anything else they could do?

Bryan can definitely speak more to stolen bikes being sold on online platforms as he has been dealing with this stuff for almost a decade, with Stolen Bike Registry before Bike Index. Overall, I think that these sites don’t crack down on these bikes/sellers because it will make their sites look bad – no one wants to be known as a site for illegal goods. It would also be a lot of work to verify whether people’s claims of stolen goods are legitimate. Something that these platforms could do would be to cross-check bike listings with Bike Index. If someone reports a bike on their site as stolen, then they can see if it is listed as such on Bike Index, and if it is, flag the seller and bike. We’re always looking to build new integrations and form new partnerships such as this.

[BH] The online-platforms-as-fencing-operations discussion is so amazingly huge that there’s no way I could possibly cover it in one email, but the gist is most of these platforms have little to no care re:stopping stolen goods on their sites. Literally all they care about is showing their investors they have rapid growth. I mean, some of them won’t even let you submit a fraud report without starting an account with them, meaning that in order to chase down your own stolen goods you become one tick in the “hey look we had growth this month” column for these services.

Craigslist has always sucked. Ebay is a little better, but is such a monolith that it also needs a lot of work. And the newcomers like Offerup and Letgo are so amazingly, terribly bad at preventing stolen goods from being stolen on their sites that I could fill up a whole afternoon just talking about this. I can happily refer you to countless victims who get to watch guys sell their stolen bikes online with zero assistance from those sites, which is super frustrating to the point that the idea of a class-action isn’t too far away. (Also note that in the scenario you describe – when someone lists a fake serial – would be a huge and helpful red flag to a buyer: if the seller says the serial is 1234, and you show up and its 4567, then there’s a huge red flag that the bike is stolen. That would be a huge huge benefit to add a serial field, and yet they don’t want to add it.)

Finding thieves selling bikes on sites like Offerup is like fish in a barrel – I could literally sit here and do it all day.

The metaphor I always deploy here is that cities and states have a ton of existing law around pawn stores and other ‘resale’ stores, with these huge bureaucracies and regulations and steep penalties and fines for pawn shops that play ‘dirty’ and sell stolen goods – but suddenly when it’s all done online everybody gets a free pass. And we’ve talked to a bunch of these services and they’ve all done zero to help stem the flow of stolen bikes. It’s frustrating. I mean, we’re just a bunch of cyclist nerds with a website, and finding thieves selling bikes on sites like Offerup is like fish in a barrel – I could literally sit here and do it all day. And these sites that have hundreds of millions in VC funding can’t get it together enough to know that a seller -whose name, phone number, and other details they have – is a six time felon with a public arrest record, and he shows up and lists a $8k carbon fiber bike for sale and can’t even spell the name of the bike right? It’s a total joke that they can’t do better.

What are your immediate and more long term plans for the future of Bike Index?

In the immediate, we’re always looking to register and recover more bikes. Bike Index is definitely a labor of love for everyone involved. Cycling is a huge part of our lives and we want to make sure that everyone who rides a bike keeps their bike in their own hands. Because we’re a nonprofit, we subsist mainly on donations. And sometimes we recover a $10,000 bike and get no donation in return. So of course, we’re also always looking to build features that will help us bring in revenue to keep Bike Index expanding and recovering more bikes.

Bike theft is rampant on university campuses. Bike Index provides full suites of features for universities to keep track of their students’ bikes and keep their students rolling.

We’ve gotten really good at building custom Bike Index registration platforms for organizations that have budget and need for registration build-outs. We’re seeing lots of success with universities, which are the perfect setting for a Bike Index registration system. Universities need the ability to get in touch with bike owners on their campuses for all sorts of things (bikes locked in the wrong places, abandoned bikes, etc.), and universities also have limited resources for finding stolen bikes that are taken off campus. Bike theft is rampant on university campuses. Bike Index provides full suites of features for universities to keep track of their students’ bikes and keep their students rolling.

Of course our goal at large is to become the household name for bike registrations, if there ever could be such a thing. We want every cyclist ever to register in Bike Index because this would mean that everyone is keeping eyes out for stolen bikes as well, and ultimately reducing bike crime. And we want to keep providing our service for free for anyone who rides a bike. You shouldn’t have to pay to protect your bike after you’ve already spent money on your bike. We want to encourage people to ride and get outside.

Regarding future plans, have you thought about a phone app, similar to the 529 Garage app? I imagine a GPS based app that victims could use to quickly alert when and where their bike was stolen and which would automatically alert other cyclists / authorities in the area could be incredibly powerful.

We have definitely considered building an app. That being said, we will never rely on an app, because there are tons of cyclists who don’t have smartphones, and who rely on desktop versions of services. Another big thing for us is cost and personnel. Bike Index is only made up of three people, and we are a nonprofit that subsists mostly on donations. While this is definitely not a hindrance when it comes to registering and recovering bikes, apps require fees that we would rather put into getting universities or municipalities in the Bike Index system, if we have to choose. But if there’s an app developer out there who wants to build us an app… let us know!

Bike Index is only made up of three people, and we are a nonprofit that subsists mostly on donations.

[BH] Apps are nice. I like apps. We may do an app someday. For now though our site is mobile-optimized, we have more utility and responsiveness with our Twitter/Facebook/Instagram and our organic networks of users who are on the lookout in specific places instead of just blanket-alerting everybody in the same zip code 36 to 50 times per day. I think that could get pretty annoying, to be honest … that app would constantly be going off every 15 minutes in places like SF or Seattle.

So right now we’re more into letting people opt-in to the alerts and stolen bike feeds, instead of pushing them at them constantly. The barrier to app usage and entry though is enormous, too – I’m talking about getting someone to take the time to download, authorize, config and accept app push notifications and so on – whereas Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are pretty low. And, definitely as Lily pointed out it’s a resources thing. We’re absolutely slammed and running on a low budget, so app development isn’t something we’re focusing on right now.

OK, great stuff. Many thanks for your time!


As they mention in the article: Bike Index is a non-profit scheme that exists entirely on donations. You can donate here.

I would also urge you to register your bike with Bike Index. It’s entirely free. It lasts for ever. And it will exponentially increase the chances of recovering your bike when it’s stolen!

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