Tackling Bike Theft

The rising popularity of cycling across the UK has been accompanied by rising bike theft. 

It is the highest reported crime by volume in Cambridge, with nearly two percent of residents reporting a bike stolen in 2020 and many more likely going unreported.  And yet, the police have openly admitted that they do not consider bike theft a ‘high harm’ crime that they should devote significant resources to. 

Many of the bike thefts in Cambridge are also reported on social media, in particular through Facebook groups. This has allowed the public to work together to recover stolen bikes, as well as provided unprecedented insights into the people stealing bikes, and the police response.

If the UK wants to promote active travel, people must feel confident that their bikes are safe.

The Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner in Cambridgeshire, Darryl Preston, made bike theft a theme of his election campaign, and helped by setting up a series of meetings with the Superintendent responsible for policing Cambridge and local community activists to discuss bike theft, the evidence available when the community gets together, and how to tackle the problem more effectively. 

Here are some thoughts on what the problems are around bike theft, and how these could be tackled.

What are the problems? 

Police communication: The police offer two main modes of contact – the 999 service for emergencies and the 101 service for all other inquiries. Most victims of bike theft call 101. The police response to 101 is often delayed or non-existent, leaving victims uncertain of an investigation’s status (or even if there is one). Many lose confidence in the police and take on the risk of recovering their bikes themselves with a GPS tracker or Apple Air tag. To adequately combat bike theft, the police must improve their channels of communication so that victims do not feel that their cases disappear into a black hole.

Slow investigations and short sentences: There is an unacceptable disconnect between the public and criminal justice system about the evidentiary standard for proving bike theft. Even with overwhelming evidence of bike theft, such as witness statements and videos of stolen bikes being recovered, it can still take months or years before a suspect ends up in court while the police ‘gather evidence’. Offences are often captured on CCTV cameras, but it is absurdly difficult to collect evidence from them. Members of the public cannot review the tapes in most cases due to data protection laws, and police won’t review footage unless the victim can pinpoint the time of theft to within a short period of time. When bike thefts are successfully prosecuted, the trivial sentences do little to rehabilitate the criminal or deter others from future offences, with offenders thrown straight back into the lifestyle they left before prosecution.

Dearth of safe bike parking: Unchecked bike theft is facilitated by inadequate infrastructure for people to store and lock their bikes safely. As one example, the Cyclepoint facility in Cambridge Station has fallen woefully short of its promise to safely house 3,000 bikes. Despite its £2.5 million price tag, the ongoing management of the facility by the train operators has been shambolic. Cyclepoint stands can be easily unbolted with a spanner, and there is constant evidence of bike theft (broken locks, single wheels, deconstructed bike stands). CCTV footage either does not work or cannot be obtained by the police, stymieing dozens of investigations, many involving high value bikes. While there are plans to improve the Cyclepoint, the situation has been nothing short of disgraceful.

Broken Bike Stand at Cambridge Cyclepoint

E.g. A reported response to a bike theft under a CCTV camera at the Cyclepoint:

What are the solutions?

Police reform: In areas with high levels of bike theft, the police should treat it as a serious crime and devote an officer or team to the problem. They should engage with the public on social media to give confidence that investigations are happening, as well as to obtain more evidence (enlisting potential witnesses to upload photos/videos of the crime). If the police spot a bike thief on CCTV footage but cannot identify them, they should enlist the public’s assistance. And when there is compelling evidence of a stolen bike’s location (e.g. a tracker or online advertisement), the police should always follow-up with a victim within a reasonable timeframe and attempt to recover the stolen property. This will likely need new ‘near-realtime’ ways to interact with the police between 999 (its an emergency) and 101 (we might look at it in a few days time).

Eg. A reported response to a crime report where the victim knew the precise location of their stolen property:

Justice system Reform: There must be more transparency concerning the evidence and procedure needed to prosecute bike theft, as well as a fundamental review of how suspects transition from arrest to conviction in order to streamline the process. It goes without saying that suspects need to be treated fairly, but the current system is not fair to victims. When the effort required for the police and CPS to secure a bike theft conviction is out of all proportion to the likely sentence, is it any wonder that the authorities may lack motivation to investigate a case?

Criminal Behaviour Orders: Bike thieves are sometimes issued CBO (the new name for ASBOs)s upon conviction, which ban them from possessing bikes or bike parts without proof of ownership. This significantly lowers the burden of proof for people with a track record of stealing. Cambridgeshire police have published some CBOs relevant to bike theft on their website, but in general, the process of obtaining such information is needlessly opaque and bureaucratic. Enormous progress could be made on stopping bike theft if every person convicted of stealing a bike more than once automatically received a time-limited CBO, and the list of current CBOs was made publicly available and easy to find.

Better locks: It is true that battery-powered angle grinders can break the strongest D Locks in seconds, but it is rare and risky for criminals to use them. Most thefts are the consequence of weak bike locks that can be dismantled with basic tools (or none at all). Retailers should be prohibited from selling shoddy bike locks, and bike owners should be educated on the protocols needed to keep their property safe (for instance, using more than one lock and locking both wheels and the frame).

More bike parking: Even the best locks are useless without safe bike parking. Far too many bike stands in the UK are bolted down with standard nuts than can be removed quickly with a hand spanner. Local authorities should ensure that new bike stands either have security bolts or are concreted into the ground. More cycle parking should also be provided in public spaces. There are appallingly long waiting lists for cycle hangars in urban centres like Southwark, Camden and Islington, which unfairly deter people from owning bikes.

Bike Registration: The probability of recovering a bike without record of its frame number is close to zero. Even if the police find the bike, the owner has little way to prove ownership. The best solution is to record one’s bike details on  www.bikeregister.com and get a sticker letting thieves know the bike is registered. France has already required retailers to register the new bikes they sell, and many Conservative MPs in the UK are supporting a similar bill for quad bikes – it makes complete sense to extend this to all bikes.

There is so much that owners, police, and the government can do to curb bike theft. Cyclists in the UK have a right to feel that their property is safe.

*Many thanks to the Cambridgeshire police for all they are doing to tackle this problem – speaking to them does illustrate the enormous demands placed on modern policing.