‘You never really own a bike in London – you’re just borrowing one for a while.’ I can’t remember who said that, but – having had two bikes stolen since I took up cycling – I do know how true it is.
My current bike is approaching its third birthday, which makes it the longest time I’ve been able to ‘borrow’ a bike by about a year. I usually try not to say anything about how long I’ve had my bike, for fear of jinxing myself. I know the day I say, ‘I’ve had my bike for three years and it hasn’t been nicked’, is the day I find a broken lock kicking about where my bike should have been (oops, too late – just said it…)
I thought my time had come last night. I’d locked my bike up near Oxford Street while I went off to meet a friend. A couple of hours later I returned to find that someone had locked their bike to mine. My immediate thought was that it had been done on purpose and someone was trying to steal my bike. This is how it goes: a thief sees a likely looking bike locked up, so they lock another bike to it and the stand. The innocent bike owner can do nothing except leave their bike where it is. The thief then comes back later, complete with tools, and breaks the lock in their own sweet time while there’s no-one around to stop them. I’ve heard of at least two people having their bikes stolen this way.
So you can understand why I was convinced I’d never see my bike again. There it was, right in front of me, yet – in my mind at least – it was as good as gone. I was utterly powerless to stop what I thought was inevitable. It was incredibly frustrating, and I was so angry. I wanted to do something. But what could I do? Indeed, what can anyone do to stop their bike being nicked? As I stood there, it really hit home. It just doesn’t matter how securely you lock your bike: if someone wants to steal it, they will.
Bike theft in London is a huge and growing problem, with latest estimates suggesting that around 80,000 bikes are stolen each year. To put that in context, that’s around one bike per 100 Londoners. The worst of it is that the thieves will almost certainly get away with it. Ask any cyclist and they’ll tell you that the police just don’t seem to care. My flatmate was telling me earlier about the time she stood and watched a group of thieves target the bike racks at one station, lifting away bike after bike. She’d seen them; other people must have seen them too. So where were the police? And where are the police when all these stolen bikes turn up for sale at Brick Lane market, or on Gumtree?
Well, it appears that things might be changing. According to an article in the Guardian today a new Police Cycle Task Force is being set up:
The 30-strong team will be responsible for targeting organised bike crime in London. This will be done through undercover operations and working with websites such as Gumtree to make it harder for people to sell bikes that don’t belong to them. The hope is that targeting the key players will drastically reduce the level of bike crime in London. Efforts are also been put into creating a central database of marked bicycles in London. This will help police and retailers identify and verify the legitimate owner of bikes that have been stolen and are being sold.
As it happens, my bike wasn’t stolen last night. I went back to it a little while later, and the other bike had gone. I’ll never know if it was a genuine mistake, or if they had been trying to nick my bike. Right now I don’t care – I’m just relieved I’m still ‘borrowing’ my bike for a while longer. But it’s also reassuring to think that, if it had been stolen, the police might have been genuinely interested in doing something about it.