You lock your bike securely to the stand. After running some errands you come back to fetch it – only to find it has vanished, with your D-lock lying forlornly on the ground.
If you’ve ever had a bicycle stolen, you’ll know that gut-twisting feeling. You may also recall a sinking sense of disappointment upon being told by the police shortly after that there is nothing they can do.
It’s no secret that bike theft is a major issue, particularly in London, and one that the authorities are struggling to grapple with.
Using the Freedom of Information Act, Cycling Weekly has obtained exclusive figures from the Metropolitan Police about just how successfully the force is clamping down on bike thieves in the capital. The data paints a grim picture.
In the past five full calendar years – 2017 to 2021 – a huge 162,943 bicycles were reported stolen in London. That’s roughly one every 16 minutes. The true figure is likely to be higher still, as many people do not bother reporting thefts.
Combined, these stolen bikes were worth £93m – about £570 each on average.
Thefts spiked in 2020 amid the coronavirus-induced lockdowns, with 37,291 reported bike swipings that year. As Scotland Yard regularly releases crime statistics which include the number of bicycle thefts, that’s already been widely reported.
But we have also got hold of previously unpublished data on how well the police are responding.
It shows that for the 162,943 bicycle thefts recorded during this five-year period, only 4,060 arrests were made, so in just 2.5 per cent of cases.
Less than 2 per cent (3,088) resulted in further proceedings, such as a court summons, a criminal charge or a caution.
In other words, if you steal a bike in London, it appears you have at least a 98% chance of getting away with it.
We also asked for information about how many of the stolen bikes were recovered.
Here the situation is equally bleak. Only 4,278 were retrieved, and of these, 608 were either damaged or only “recovered in part”.
This means that if you have your bike stolen in London, you have a measly one in 44 chance of getting it back intact.
“Incredibly, the real figures are even worse,” says Duncan Dollimore, head of campaigns and advocacy at the national cycling charity, Cycling UK.
"That’s because this data only reflects police recorded crime figures, whereas household survey data for England and Wales indicate that cycle theft is three times higher, with many people not reporting a crime they don’t think the police will take seriously.”
All this raises the question of how seriously the Met is taking bicycle thefts. Incidentally, the force solves around 8.2 per cent of the overall crimes reported in London – so a significantly higher proportion than for bicycle thefts alone.
Going through the motions
Lily Leotardi, 28, had owned her bike for just two months when it was stolen from the indoor store at her block of flats in east London during the November 2020 lockdown.
The thief had brazenly hacked the door open and cut through her chain lock in broad daylight. Ms Leotardi reported the theft via an online form, attaching CCTV footage of the crime taking place.
About a week later, she received a call from a police officer. From the officer’s questions, Ms Leotardi recalls, it was clear she had not watched the clip.
“When I told her you couldn’t see the guy’s face she said: ‘I’m sorry, there’s nothing else we can do, we’re going to have to close your case,’” Ms Leotardi tells Cycling Weekly.
After suggesting she try to find her bike on Gumtree, (“is that not their job?” Ms Leotardi wonders), the officer ended the call and immediately sent an email expressing sympathy and disappointment.
"It felt like they were just going through the motions before they closed the case. It definitely didn’t feel like they were doing everything they could,” Ms Leotardi reflects. “I know they are always saying they are under-resourced but I get the impression they are not particularly bothered as well.”
Ms Leotardi is not alone. Dom Bolt, 29, has had two bikes stolen. In both cases, he was told there was CCTV footage that could only be released directly to the police. Both times, the Met closed the case without obtaining or requesting the footage.
“I could tell it wasn’t a priority,” he says. “The officers I spoke to were always nice, but it just felt like they knew they were never going to get it back.”
Mr Bolt says he has a friend who had his bike stolen, got hold of CCTV footage of the crime, identified the perpetrator with the help of social media, and discovered his address.
He passed all this information to the police, who took no action.
Sam Jones, also of Cycling UK, who has engaged with the Met over the issue of bicycle thefts in the past felt “it was clear at an officer level it was a priority which wasn’t necessarily reflected at an organisational level.”
Little sign of improvement
Cycling UK’s Mr Dollimore believes the Met could find better ways to clamp down on the scourge of bicycle thefts.
"In big cities such as London, the reality is that cycle theft isn’t just some minor opportunistic crime. The value of the assets stolen and the reward-to-risk ratio has attracted more organised criminals, with over half of stolen bikes ending up for sale through online outlets,” he says.
"Whilst acknowledging limitations on police resources, targeting the marketplaces for and sellers of stolen bikes must surely be an effective way to discourage this offence and improve detection rates."
Unfortunately, the data indicates little improvement. The number of stolen bikes recovered intact as a proportion of thefts gradually declined over the period captured, from 2.79 per cent in 2017 to 1.97 per cent in 2021. Arrests followed a similar pattern, save for a small uptick in 2020.
In response to points raised in this article, a spokesperson for the Met said: “The Metropolitan Police Service takes every incident of bicycle theft seriously and recognises the distress this crime causes its victims. We are also aware that for many, this can be a main form of transport and can therefore greatly disrupt their everyday lives.
“When a report is received officers will carry out every reasonable line of inquiry to recover the property and bring any suspect to justice.
“Anyone who owns a bicycle is urged to get it security marked and registered at BikeRegister – this helps officers return stolen property to its rightful owner, and it also helps to bring prosecutions.”
Thank you for reading 20 articles this month* Join now for unlimited access
Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1
*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription
Join now for unlimited access
Try first month for just £1 / $1 / €1