Chicago Startup: Bike Index Could Put Brakes on Thieves

Every year a whopping 1.5 million bikes are stolen, swiped off streets and college campuses (a virtual thief magnet), and cut from posts. A Chicago bike enthusiast turned programmer has created a free online service to help protect your ride.

Photo via Chicago Magazine Eighteen-and-a-half miles of road stretch down Chicago's Lakefront Trail along Lake Michigan, a daily route for bike commuters that connects neighborhoods as far north as Rogers Park and ends at the South Shore Cultural Center.

Chicago is a biking city, for work commute and pleasure, with about 200 miles of bike lanes, the City's Divvy bike sharing system in full swing and 13,000 bike racks around town. 

Which makes it a perfect crime opportunity for thieves.

Seth Herr wants to change that, or at least make stolen bikes harder to fence. At a recent Open Gov Hack Night, held every Tuesday in the 1871 digital startup compound in the Merchandise Mart, Herr, fresh off a successful month-long Kickstarter campaign which raised more than $51,000, fielded questions from a spirited audience of techies, programmers and a rep from the mayor's office about his newly minted Bike Index, a free online registration service. 

It's not the first registry of its kind. "People have been able to register their bike online for a very long time," says the 26-year-old Lancaster, Pa., native and former bike mechanic. The problem is, whether through apathy or lack of information, people, well, just don't do it. Add another layer of complexity (and frustration) when you discover consumers have few options to check bike ownership or sales history the way we're accustomed to with a car's title. Think about it: How would you check whether a bike was lifted?

Although the Chicago Police Department has an official bike registry, it doesn't track data on stolen bikes. And if you're cruising Craigslist hoping to score a deal on a new or used Trek Verve Hybrid or an ultralight Pivot trail bike, you've landed in a haven for snatched wheels. 

With these anemic protections and data in mind, Herr, a Spanish lit major who ran the bike co-op as a student, says he began coding out of necessity and transitioned to full-time businessman when his open source Bike Index website became more than a side project. 

There are still bugs to iron out, but it's an easy-to-use interface where consumers self-register details (serial number, model, color, upload a photo). Did you sell your bike? No problem, just update the profile. Did your bike get nabbed between class and Starbucks? Let the Bike Index know (and the police). Prevention is the best cure, right? Check out the page on protection and the best locks

For new bike owners, the red tape is handled for you. Herr secured partnerships with local bike shops to make registration with the Bike Index a no-hassle, seamless, nearly automatic "check one box" process at the point-of-sale through an arrangement with the widely deployed MerchantOS system.

As with many startups, it takes time for the public to adapt and adopt. In the next six months, Herr wants to create a data-sharing alliance with the Chicago Police Department "to make our data available to the government," and there's a paid subscription offering in the works for real-time bike data — who's buying and where — a la Google Analytics. But the next big push is a multicity road tour where his micro staff can hit other bike cities and connect with more shops.

What's the most surprising thing he's discovered as a businessman? The bike shops didn't want to split fees (the initial offer) but wanted to keep the registration service free of charge to their customers. "That was exciting and uplifting," said Herr.

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