How can Britain ever embrace cycling if our bikes keep getting stolen? | Adam Becket

For most cyclists, bike theft feels like an inevitability. It’s just one of those risks that you are doomed to face any day you take your bike out. Such is the fear I have of my pride and joy being stolen – yes, I am one of those people who consider my bike to be my most important possession – that I rarely, if ever, lock it up outside. At home, it stays inside. At work, I take it into the building. If the bike is outside, I’m either on it or in close proximity to it.

It doesn’t seem to matter what kind of lock or preventive measure you use, or where you leave them, bikes – from a cheap, secondhand cycle to a top-of-the-range racer – can just go missing in an instant, with little recourse apart from claiming on insurance.

This easy crime, and the fear of it happening, is compounded by lack of action by the police. Analysis by the Liberal Democrats, released earlier this week, shows that 90% of all bicycle theft cases reported to police in England and Wales over the past year were closed without a suspect even being identified, and just 1.7% resulted in someone being charged.

All my cycling group chats are regularly inundated with tales of woe from people who have had their prized bike taken. I have a friend who has had two different bikes stolen from their work lockup. I know people who have been robbed of their bike at knife-point.

Another friend had her bike taken from the 10ft pole it was locked to outside her house. The thieves convinced her neighbours to lend them a ladder on the pretence they had lost the key to their bike’s lock and then lifted the whole thing clean over. It can be both that simple and that outlandish.

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It is no surprise that theft seems to affect the young and disadvantaged the most, as they’re the ones who are less likely to have a secure place to lock their bike – or indeed have any insurance. Included in the myriad problems of finding places to live that are affordable and livable is the difficulty of finding somewhere where you can leave a bike inside, or keep it out of harm’s way.

There are problems across all of our creaking state, but bike theft has never been taken seriously, and it is not something that can be cured simply with better-funded police. The data was used by the Lib Dems to attack the Conservatives over police numbers and funding, yet the problem – and solution – goes beyond this, to culture, design and, ultimately, how we value an increasingly essential mode of transport.

Stealing a bike is a classic low-risk, high-reward crime. Imagine if other kinds of theft were treated with the same kind of indifference or acceptance by the victims. I don’t go around thinking my laptop will be stolen in the same way as my bike. While Home Office figures show that in the year to March 2022 just 6.3% of robbery offences and 4.1% of thefts in England and Wales resulted in charges, it is demonstrably worse for bikes. There would be uproar if car crime was dealt with in a similar way, but because it is just a bicycle, it can seemingly just be brushed aside. Cars may be worth more on average, but I know lots of people whose bikes are worth more than their cars – or at least they value their bike more than their car. And, for many, bikes are a necessity, not a pastime.

Bike theft may be an easy crime to commit and get away with, but it is not victimless. Think of someone who relies on a bike to get to and from work: if their machine is stolen, there is a reasonable chance that they will not replace it. This could easily could become another person forced to rely on the inefficient bus networks in some parts of the country to commute.

Better bike racks, with CCTV and good lighting, would be a start, as would a requirement for large private businesses to have bike racks on their premises, rather than requiring people to lock up their prize possessions outside. However, a holistic approach is needed to change a situation where theft is treated with impunity or just ignored altogether.

In 2020, during the pandemic, Boris Johnson signalled his hopes for a “golden age of cycling”. Yet how can we ever get to such a point when people face the basic problem of bike theft seemingly at any moment? Forget the lack of proper infrastructure or the ridiculous culture wars around cycling for a minute, and consider how we are supposed to head towards an era of active travel and mass cycling if people don’t even have a bike.


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