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.