What won’t bring about mass cycling: tackling bicycle theft

A “fact” was recently quoted at me: a third of people who have their bicycle stolen don’t bother replacing it, they just give up.* Thus, if we want everyday mass utility cycling, we have do something about bicycle theft.

Boris Johnson would surely agree. In his 2008 transport manifesto, he claimed he would “make London a truly cycle-friendly city through increasing secure cycle parking”.

Doing more to improve secure parking and stop theft are, of course, good things, and things that I have actively supported. But, in the words of the classic series from Freewheeler,  it won’t bring about mass cycling. To understand why, you only need to imagine living the Netherlands and getting your bicycle stolen. In fact, you don’t even need to imagine it, because many cities in the Netherlands have very high rates of bicycle theft. In recent years, theft has been running at an annual rate of about 1 in every 20 Dutch bicycles stolen: many Dutch people will be victims several times in their lives. I’m pretty sure that the owners of these bicycles didn’t give up. Why would they? They got a replacement and jumped back on.

People giving up as a result of one bicycle going missing is a sign of the much wider ill-health for cycling. Clearly cycling in the UK doesn’t hold much attraction if it takes just one set-back to make people give up forever. The Understanding Walking and Cycling project found that, in the absence of big changes to the infrastructure and to cycling’s image, there is not a very large population of British people almost ready to take to their bicycles, just waiting for a gentle nudge and the right encouragement. But clearly there are plenty who are almost ready to give them up.

The headlines at the moment are about a supposed growth in cycling rates, focussed on urban centres where the growth appears to be real. But the same headlines were being printed in 1981 and a claimed recent growth in cycling was the opening line of  this 1992 book. Cycling growth is going to remain extremely fragile so long as it’s expected to take place in the prevailing British traffic conditions.

* I have not been able to verify this “fact” — not that I put much effort into it — but the exact number doesn’t matter.

11 thoughts on “What won’t bring about mass cycling: tackling bicycle theft”

  1. The way many Netherlanders deal with bike theft is to use only bikes they can part with without feeling the pinch for their home/train station and train station/office commute. Others paint their commute bike(s) in the most original/recognizable paint scheme possible so that they can recognize their bike is it ever gets “borrowed”, knowing it will never travel very far from the “borrowing” point.

  2. You are absolutely right of course. I believe a lot of cars are stolen too, but you don’t read about car theft being a major deterrent to driving, or about a lot of people who never drive again after their car is stolen. There is such a thing as insurance.

    Providing “Secure cycle parking” tends to be one of the distraction activities our authorities engage in, the other major one being cycle training, to make it look as if they are investing in cycling, while doing nothing about the hostility of the roads.

    Vole O’Speed

  3. On Facebook, I can reliably look at my events page and see various friends asking for numbers and BBM pins because they no longer have a working phone and have lost all their contacts. This is because, despite the set back of losing a phone, having it stolen or maybe dropping it in liquid; mobile phones are considered essential enough that my peers will immediately go to Carphone Warehouse, or if they are skint, they will use their previous phone or someone else’s old one given to them. And mobile phones are probably far more prone to theft, loss or damage than bicycles. I don’t know anybody who’s given up texting after having their phone stolen…

  4. Well said all. I even agree with David that training is another of those distraction activities. It’s like when you have a very important job to do that you know is going to be awful difficult and time consuming, so you busy yourself with easy and trivial stuff instead. Like me right now!

  5. It seems that amost anything related to cycling will be considered except what is likely to actually work. This is no doubt because what is needed is difficult to achieve.

    At the moment it is easier to get cycle parking than a safe way of actually getting to it. It’s like having a nice comfy armchair on the other side of a whitewater river

  6. Thanks OldGreyBeard, that’s a particularly funny metaphor.

    Regardless of the accuracy of the claim, if someone gives up cycling after a theft it suggests to me that there is an easy alternative to cycling for their travel. So I suspect this statement doesn’t really say anything relevant (or remarkable) about utility cycling in the UK.

    At least the installation of cycle parking is a visible sign of encouragement, a positive message, despite its tokenistic appearance. The alternative is bicycles leant against lamp posts and drainpipes or blocking footways etc, neither of which is desirable.

  7. Well I’m not against cycle parking as I use it all the time.

    The amount in Leighton Buzzard where I live has increased significantly in the last few years and it does make using a bike easier.

    I just wish it was possible to complete whole journeys without have to share space with cars.

  8. I did have a neighbour who’s bike was stolen and yes it did put him off cycling, why should any one have to put up with having their property stolen? Ops I forgot, people who ride bicycle are second class citizens who should expect respect or the protection of the law!

  9. I had my first bicycle (bought in Oxford after moving from Sydney) stolen the same day I bought it. Fortunately it was a reconditioned old three-speed, which had set me back only 110 pounds, but it was still rather distressing. Couldn’t imagine living without a bicycle in Oxford, though, and I bought a new one the same week. If the bicycle I’d had in Sydney had been nicked, I could easily have given up and failed to replace it at all, since I cycled very occasionally and only recreationally.

    So I agree with this post completely. Theft really just makes bicycles a little more expensive – you either add the cost of insurance or self-insure – and would anyone really argue that reducing the cost of bikes by 10% would have a major effect on cycling rates?

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