Does Sacramento need a bike registry?

The city wants your bike's serial number. But similar efforts in San Jose and San Francisco failed, and two-wheel advocates say the focus should instead be on safer parking.

Bike thieves snatched nearly 1,500 bicycles in the city of Sacramento last year, according to police reports. But the kicker is that, as per bike advocates and law enforcement, residents seldom ever report such thefts, so the number of actual stolen bikes could be upward of 10,000.

If Sacramento isn’t Bike Thief Capital, USA, then it’s close.

City leaders want to curb this wave of five-finger discounts when it comes to two-wheelers. So, last week, Midtown and downtown’s new council member, Steve Hansen, announced support for a free city program that allows people to register bikes. The thinking is that if a resident gives over their bike’s serial number, police will have greater odds of coming across it if it’s stolen.

But some local bike advocates say a bike registry is redundant; there’s already a city program for reporting stolen bikes. “I don’t think a registry does any good,” argued Jim Brown, executive director of the Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates, “if you’re not trying to prevent thefts in the first place.”

Bike registries in cities aren’t new. Sacramento even used to have one in the 1970s. Back then, residents “used to have to go to the fire station to have their bike registered,” explained Michelle Lazark, one of 10 bike police officers in the city. But over time, the program disappeared.

Recently, fellow Northern California cities such as San Francisco and San Jose launched their own programs. San Jose charged $3 to register a bike, in a city with an estimated 20,000 two-wheelers, but in the first year, its revenue was a paltry $600.

“Let’s put it this way: The city of San Francisco and the city of San Jose both abandoned their registration programs because they weren’t effective,” Brown said.

Now, Sacramento wants to try things a little differently. Midtown residents first raised the idea of a registry at a recent safety meeting, which piqued the interest of police, who say they could better identify stolen bikes if there was a database.

“I stop people every day, transients on nice bikes, and if the serial number was recorded, I could run it,” explained Lazark. “But people don’t.”

Councilman Hansen says he hopes to entice bike riders to register by making it free, unlike in San Jose, and easy, via the city’s website or 311 mobile app.

“The reason S.F. and San Jose abandoned their programs was due to a lack of information relayed to the public,” Hansen explained. “For example, in San Jose, residents were supposed to go to their local fire stations to get their bikes registered, but … most were unaware of the program.”

Costs and logistics for the new program are as-yet unknown, but Lazark told SN&R the registry’s launch could be imminent.

“We hope to have it out soon,” she said.

Meanwhile, bike advocates like Brown would prefer to put the brakes on a registry and instead see a shift in priorities.

“Registration is sort of figuring out to close the barn door once the horse is out,” he argued, adding that less-than-half of stolen bikes ever are recovered, and that registrants would still need to report a bike missing, anyway.

He hopes the city will focus on prevention via improved bike parking, which indeed can be a problem. Some businesses don’t offer any, others an insufficient amount. Seeing dozens of bikes locked to signposts, trees, fences—or unsafely latched to wheels instead of frames—isn’t uncommon on the central-city grid.

The irony is that in October 2012, the city passed a new bike-parking ordinance—one of the most progressive in the country, according to Brown—which sets guidelines for where to park your ride. Yet most businesses aren’t aware that it exists, or that a simple “inverted-U” bike rack costs just $70, and that the city will help set it up.

“Our parking department already has a bicycle-parking program. They will even come out and install a rack for you. It’s just a matter of applying for the program,” Hansen explained.

Bike advocates fear that word also won’t get out about a bike registry. Not that this is the city’s fault: Some people just don’t pay as much attention when it comes to bike safety and smarts.

For instance, as Lazark observed, many local riders still use cheap, inadequate locks. “It takes less than a minute to cut through one of those cable locks,” she said. “They’re like butter.”