'Nothing rocket science-y' — How UK police are combatting bike theft

Secure, register, and report is the mantra

Bike theft
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Bike theft is all too common an occurrence, something that comes with the territory of wanting to get about a city on two wheels. It often seems like a problem which is not being taking seriously enough, despite a bike frequently being one of the most important things a person owns.

Our own Tom Davidson had his bike nicked from Hampstead Heath in the summer, and has given up any hope of getting it back.

Theft is at the level where it is discouraging people from cycling, and you wonder how cycling will ever become popular in the UK with the amount of things seemingly working against it.

However, there are people working against the criminals who are intent on making our lives miserable by taking our steeds. One of these is acting chief inspector Titus Halliwell, who alongside his other roles in the Metropolitan Police is currently leading the National Cycling Crime Group.

Speaking to Cycling Weekly, Halliwell says that "there's nothing rocket science-y" about reducing bike crime, and it is all pretty straightforward stuff.

"There's a national plan to reduce cycle crime, and it's about getting partnerships set up in areas of high cycle crime to address it holistically," he explains. "It's clearly enforcement, but it's also doing prevention in terms of bike marking, and making sure the powers that be create the best cycling infrastructure in a way that is supporting those initiatives.

"More cycle marking, better cycle parking, and just making people take ownership of their bikes really. In essence, it's the points I've given you. There's nothing rocket science-y about it. Cambridge has had very good reductions, and they've gone out and verified ownership of bikes when they stop people."

He does not think there has been a sudden surge in bike theft, despite fears of one. An investigation by the Daily Telegraph recently found that in 87% of the 24,000 neighbourhoods that saw a reported bicycle theft in the last three years, not a single case was ever solved.

"I suspect it's pretty constant," he says. "But it's probably a cohort of motivated people doing it rather than spontaneous theft, per se."

Bike theft

(Image credit: Getty Images)

One problem that has risen in recent years, Halliwell says, is that bikes now change hands on the internet and social media more than anywhere else, allowing anonymity more than ever.

"The problem is that social media platforms have allowed the sale of bikes to be more at arms length," he says. "You can sell on Facebook Marketplace or eBay or Gumtree, or whatever, and there is a ready market of people, especially as there has been a problem of supply in the last couple of years. 

"Because these various social media platforms are trusted, your levels of questioning aren't as active as if someone came up to you in a pub. 

"Seeing criminals as opportunists is wrong, because there is a premeditated side to it. People go out with an angle grinder to steal bikes."

Even if it is not opportunists, but serious criminals with the tools to take bikes, they are still on the look out for bikes that can be taken without much fuss, whether that is the ill-locked or the seemingly abandoned.

"Often the problem is that bikes are left in the open for a significant amount of time, because they are commuter bikes, or they're in communal areas of apartment blocks," Halliwell explains. "If they are stolen, it is often the case that it won't be noticed until the transaction has been completed."

The biggest step people can do to ensure they have the best chance of getting their bike back is to take note of the frame number, any identifying dents or scrapes, and the parts that make your bike stand out. It might be the scratch from getting it out of your car that time which means it can be reunited with you.

"The problem is that a lot of people buy their bike from a shop, will take it home, and will ride it, then it will get stolen," Halliwell says. "And all they will know the type of bike and where it's from. They haven't got the frame number, they haven't done anything practically to make sure they're locking it in a good way. 

"What the average cycle thief does, if they're trying to anonymise the bike before selling it, is they'll take off bottle cages, saddle bags, all those kind of things that make it stick out. They try to make the bike look as standards as possible. They also usually use stock photos."

Bike theft

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Despite reports of aggressive bike theft-based attacks, not the least the assault on pro Alex Richardson in Richmond Park last year, Halliwell is keen to play these incidents down.

"They take place, but they are very few and far between," he argues. "There are instances of people being attacked in certain parts of London, but it's not a day in, day out occurrence. It is still very rare, and I don't think we should be building people's fear and concern over something that is low level in terms of volume."

The key thing is to register your bike, insure it, and to report it stolen if something does go wrong.

"Relative to the amount of cycle journeys a day in London, bike theft is relatively low," Halliwell says. "There is always an element of underreporting, because there's a perception that the police won't do anything about it. And also if you don't have your bike insured, then what's the point in getting a crime report number? If you put bad information into the system you're going to get bad information out.

"I really want people to report cycle crime, so people have an active picture of what's going on. Because if we don't have an accurate picture we can't know. Tell us as much as possible about those bikes, because then if they are recovered, we can restore them to you. If we don't know the frame number, it's tricky."

Secure your bike properly, register it, and report it if it does get stolen. It seems easy.

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