Why bike theft needs to be re-criminalised, urgently

The British public don't trust the police to find their stolen bicycle, and why should they?

bike theft
(Image credit: Getty stock image)

The fear of my bike being stolen prevents me from locking it up pretty much anywhere in public. I'll leave it at home, inside, and at work, inside. Anywhere else is pretty much out of bounds, and on the rare occasions I do cycle somewhere and lock it up, outside a pub, for example, I will be wracked with anxiety that I will return to an empty bike rack, or even just something missing.

We all know this worry; bike theft seems like one of those crimes that just seems legal nowadays, one of the many inevitable results of the austerity measures of the Conservative government, which has included stripping back the numbers of police.

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.

It is not only the fear of your bike being stolen that affects many, but the fact that you simply probably won't ever see your bike ever again, and even if you have some form of evidence or managed to track your bike down, police often do not have the resources or the wherewithal to act.

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

Faisal Islam, the BBC's economics editor, had his his case closed by police even though he had an internal tracker on it that showed where it was ferried in a vehicle to its final “resting place” in east London. “[Police] closed the case the day after I reported it despite the fact the bike is still beaming its location,” he tweeted. “If they identify the vehicle, pretty strong basis to crack an entire gang.”

This lack of action and hope over bike theft has been shown in recent figures from polling: a YouGov study (opens in new tab) showed that 77% of Britons who don’t expect that the police will try and properly investigate bicycle theft, the highest level for any of the 15 crimes we asked about. Just one in nine Britons (11%) think the police would attempt to pursue leads and catch the culprit.

In London, a bike is reported stolen every 16 minutes, with just 2.5% of cases resulting in arrests being made. It's no better in other areas of the country, with bike theft seemingly rife; I live in Bristol, a city notorious for bike crime, which discourages me from ever locking my bike up.

With reports of moped gangs threatening riders and stealing bikes doing the rounds in recent years, you can easily see how people would be put off from cycling, despite it often being the most convenient method of transport. I find myself using a hired e-scooter more often than my bike to get around town, almost only because I don't want to lock my bike up and find it gone.

Stealing someone's bicycle might seem like a minor crime to some, but it is not victimless. Someone might rely on their bike to get to work, to socialise, to help their mental health. As the cost of living crisis bites more, and fuel prices continue to rise, it is more likely that those on lower incomes might rely more on pedal power as a way of getting round. Take a bike, and that might ruin a life.

Of course, bike theft is far from the only crime that needs to be tackled more - burglaries and theft are among those that have an astonishingly low rate of charges brought, and sexual assault crimes still have a horrifically low conviction rate. 

Even other crimes that affect cyclists, like dangerous driving and other offences by motorists, seem ludicrously easy to get away with.

A report recently released by HMICFRS – the police watchdog – said that police forces are failing to adequately investigate cases of burglary, robbery and theft in England and Wales (opens in new tab). Recent Home Office figures show (opens in new tab) 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.

All of this is not a simple argument for more police, or better resources given to the justice system; I am aware of the failings of the carceral state, and the problems with just putting more police on our streets. However, it would be nice if bike theft was taken seriously, and people felt able to cycle without fear of losing their steed at any moment. It's a silly meme, but crime really does need to be made illegal again.

A bike might just seem like any other possession, to some it might be just like having a television or some headphones, but it is more than that, it should be valued as much as a car. A bicycle is an emancipatory machine, remember. It should not be easy to steal bikes or have your bike stolen.

How to prevent bike theft, and what to do if your bike is stolen

The utopia of a world in which you can leave your bike unattended without fear seems far away, so here are a few tips on how to secure it, and what to do if it is stolen.

Firstly, make sure you're using a proper lock, a D-lock if you can, with a separate chain for the wheels, anything to dissuade the would-be thief. Put it somewhere well lit and as public as possible, although this is not always a deterrent. All of this seems victim-centred, and it is - in an ideal world it wouldn't need to be - but it might just work.

Remove anything that can be easily removed from the bike, like lights, a saddlebag, bottles, or a mini-pump, because these can easily be snatched (I speak from experience here).

If you register your bike with BikeRegister and keep a note of its frame number, in the event that it is recovered, you can prove it is yours. Also consider getting bicycle insurance, so that in the sad event of your bike going missing, you can claim a new one as quickly as possible.

Crucially, if you bike does get stolen, make sure you report it. It might seem pointless, having just read all of the above, but if you don't report it, the police figures won't show how serious a problem it is, and resources might not be sent to help in the future. Think of it as helping out for the greater good.

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