Somewhere between chopped locks and chop shops, victims of bike theft have been left without a ride on the University of Pennsylvania campus. That was before the bait bike program.

The program includes placing bikes with GPS chips hidden in them in high theft zones. When they move, police are able to follow them on camera.

The bikes are rigged to stick in low gear, so any criminal would have a hard time outriding the police. The intent is to capture the real trouble-makers, not simple petty thieves of opportunity.

Since implementing the program one year ago, the campus has seen a 37-percent drop in bike thefts. Temple and the Philadelphia Police Department are now looking to implement similar programs.

Maureen Rush, V.P. of Public Safety at University of Pennsylvania, explains the program, including the humorous details about the “low gear.”

Why did you begin the bait bike program?

Bike theft is a growing problem throughout the U.S. especially in urban areas where people are looking for alternative transportation modes.  Bike theft is also a common crime on college campuses. Additionally, investigating these thefts after-the-fact is time consuming and difficult. We were looking for alternative ways to deter bike thefts, not simply respond after-the-fact. My Director of Emergency Communications read an article about GPS technology by 3S1 Security Systems of Malvern, PA that the FBI LEEDA was conducting training on. The technology has been used to replace dye packs in bank robberies so that law enforcement can track the perpetrators. We thought: if you can track bags of money, why not use it to track bikes, which provide the thieves with their getaway.

We hide the technology on the bike and then lock it to a pole or railing on campus in an area under CCTV surveillance. When the thief cuts the lock and begins to move the bike, our dispatchers receive an alert and bring the location up on camera. We can then give out a description of the suspect to officers and catch the thief within minutes. After catching three thieves, we recovered our start-up costs, for a quick ROI.

Is there one particular area of the University of Pennsylvania campus that the bikes are being stolen?

Bikes are taken from all out patrol zone, on and off campus, known as University City.  As we also have three hospitals (Hospital of University of Philadelphia, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and Penn Presbyterian) in our area with many bike commuters, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of bikes in the University
City area.

On average, how long once a bike is stolen before the thief is apprehended?

With our bait bike arrests, suspects are apprehended within four minutes on average after taking the bike.

How does the low gear help to make it harder for thieves to pedal away?

We have some great videos of thieves hopping on the stolen bait bike and pedaling as fast as they can, only to move a few feet. Our officers will ride up next to them, and you can see the looks on their faces say: “Okay, you got me!” The next time they come to campus (and) think about taking a bike, they will ask themselves: “Is this a bait bike?” The deterrent effect is immeasurable.