Abandoned bikes: where do they go?

On my way from the bus to the Rideau Centre doors one morning last month, just after the first real snowfall of the year, I passed a bike that had been left locked to the railing. It was up to the pedals in snow, half buried, and had clearly been there since before the snow came down. To me at least, it looked as though the basket still had some things in it – but then maybe it was just that passing pedestrians had been sticking coffee cups and flyers and other trash in the basket.

I had no way of knowing how long that bike had been there, but I kept an eye out for it, and when I passed a few days later, there it still was. And I started wondering. Whose bike was it? Why had it been left on the bridge? Why hadn’t its owner returned for it? How long had it been there, and how long was it going to stay there before someone removed it… and for that matter, whose responsibility was it to move the thing? What would happen to it?

So I decided to try and find out. I called the City of Ottawa and was directed to their Media Relations office, who told me that the police hold an auction a couple of times a year, where they auction off any bikes they’re holding that aren’t claimed. All well and good, I thought, but how long does a bike have to sit in a public place before someone comes by to cut the locks? And who does that? Where does the money from the auction go and who comes to the auction? How do you know where to go if your bike’s been left out and taken away?

I called the Ottawa Police and talked to someone who told me more. Apparently the majority of the bikes processed by the police are found; generally stolen and then recovered when they’re abandoned and someone reports finding them. When a bike is left locked in a public place, it’s up to the owner of the property to report it: they have to call the city to get someone to come out and cut the locks. Say the bike is left locked to the rail on the steps of a church: someone from the church has to call it in. If it’s left locked to a city bike rack, presumably someone from the city is charged with monitoring how long it stays there and when it comes down.

So that bike sitting on the Mackenzie King transit bridge would presumably have to be reported by someone working for OC Transpo, since they’re responsible for Transitway stations.

Anyway, the city collects them, then the bikes are picked up by the police and entered into the Canadian Police Information Centre. If the bike has a serial number, it will be entered into the database. And if you happen to know your bike’s serial number, you can search for it and find out if it’s been turned in anywhere. . . although I’m willing to bet most if not all of the cyclists I know don’t have a clue what their bike’s number might be. Maybe if I paid $1000 or so for my bike I’d know that, but generally bikes are like cats: few people go out and get purebreds. More often they’re adopted, secondhand, bought from friends, acquired, inherited from moves.

The police enter the bike into CPIC, and then hold onto it for a minimum of 30 days. If no one has claimed the bike in that time (and 80% of bikes go unclaimed) then the bikes are collected by an organization called Crown Assets Distribution (www.crownassets.pwgsc.gc.ca), which is “a federal government organization responsible for the sale, distribution, disposal and re-use of surplus federal goods.” Their website posts items for auction, and sells everything from clothing to cars on a blind bidding system. Up until 2004 the police had arranged their own auctions, but their arrangement with CAD means they don’t have to worry about finding and renting a venue, staffing an auction, and all the other hassles involved. And the money still goes back to police administration.

So the bikes don’t get donated to any non-profit organizations, but presumably they do find a new lease on life, and new owners, sooner or later. . . how much sooner or later depends on where they get left, and who decides to declare them abandoned, and whether they know to call it in. Something tells me most bikes sit on their own a good long while before someone gets irritated with them being there.

photo by Kathryn Hunt

Kate Hunt is a writer and editor who works as Community Liaison for the Ottawa International Writers Festival. She has lived in Ottawa, off and on, since 1994. When not writing, doing web design and communications, freelance editing, or blogging, she helps to run the Dusty Owl Reading Series and Small Press and performs as one-fourth of the Kymeras, a storytelling and poetry troupe. She named her bicycle Mike, which seems to amuse people.


  1. Neat – thanks for reporting on your investigation! Can’t imagine most ‘abandoned’ bikes like this are in particularly good shape once they’ve been harvested and, presumably, tossed in the back of some truck…

  2. Regardless of where you got your bike, it’s pretty easy to find the serial number and jot it down . . .

  3. Very well written article… and lots of info about the public works system that I had no clue about. I’ve also wondered such questions, but thanks for taking the initiative to finding the answers.

    Info is very much appreciated

  4. I suspect you’re right, Chris: they probably do wind up junked if no one buys them. When I first blogged about this I learned from my sister in Aberdeen, Scotland, that there’s an organization there that collects abandoned bikes from the police and university campus security, repairs them or strips them for parts, and then lends them out for free, as well as giving bike repair workshops. I think a program like that would be fantastic here, but the problem is that by the time someone could do that the bikes are in a police warehouse somewhere and it’s not really in the police’s interest to organize donating them.

    I’d love to suggest to them that the bikes they can’t sell because they’re too damaged could probably be taken apart and used for parts for a bike-donation program like Bicycles for Humanity as well. Again, someone has to do the actual stripping of the bikes, though, and it’s not really the police’s job.

  5. On a side note to this, there is a place in Ottawa called the Bike Dump (downtown on the north side of the 417 by the bus station). Great store for rescued/reused bikes and to grab extra parts, maybe a commuter to work if you want to save the expensive model for trails or roads without risk of getting the expensive one stolen. I just moved to Ottawa and enjoyed searching through the stock for a pushy just for booting around town. I imagine they pick up a few here and there – maybe the ones not purchased in auction at the police station could be donated to them – I think they have a website.

  6. I love the expression “bikes are like cats”. I have one of each, both black. Funny, I just named my bike – she is Miep, after Miep Gies, who safeguarded Anne Frank’s diary and was one of the main helpers supplying the Frank family. There are many mentions of bicycles in her life story, of course: http://www.miepgies.nl Miep and Margot Frank cycled to the hiding place from the Frank family home, pretending to be just a couple of young women heading to work in the city centre. (Naming the bicycle Margot would have been in poor taste, as both Frank girls died of typhus in a Nazi camp). But Mies, who has just passed away after a short illness, lived to almost 101!

    Here in Québec, including l’Outaouais, you can donate all unwanted bicycles (except those for children under school age, as the bicycles are needed for practical purposes) to http://www.cyclonordsud.org – a charity founded by the late bicycle activist Claire Morrissette, that collects bicycles and sends them to be repaired and distributed by community associations in the global South.

  7. I help run the re-Cycles bike shop at 477 Bronson Ave. (we share the space with another org. called Cycle Salvation). We’re a volunteer-run bicycle recycling centre, and we take in donations of bikes and also also provide a place for people to fix their own bikes.

    Indeed, many of the abandoned bikes mentioned above are in sad shape, though not all started out that way. I’m amazed at how many get left out over the winter where they get coated in salty slush and the sidewalk plows hit them. Then they’re basically done.

    Many of the police auction bikes are in bad shape, though some bargains can be found. We fortunately receive so many that we do not need to check out these auctions. As it is, we took in over 1,100 bikes last year, with about 1/4 of them being stripped for parts and the carcasses and rusty bits going off to the metal recyclers. We also help out Bicycles for Humanity with their bike collection each year, donating about 50 bikes and many boxes of surplus used parts.

    While we don’t have room to take in bikes specifically for BfH, we will take in any bike that comes to us, regardless of condition. Check our website http://re-Cycles.ca for more info, or our partner http://cyclesalvation.org.

  8. Hi There…

    Thanks for the informative rundown of how Ottawa is handling this issue.
    I’ve just started my own Cycling Blog, and I’ve posted some views on how the City of Toronto addresses this same matter, with thanks for your own informative process in Ottawa near the end…I hope you don’t mind the ‘Ottawa Envy’ that I included for good measure 😉


    Jo in Toronto

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