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A Solution To The Epidemic Of Cycle Theft

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Outside a Grocers, on a typical London afternoon, a man stood with his back to his bicycle waiting to rendezvous with some acquaintances. He suddenly heard pounding steps rushing towards him from behind, and before he could complete his swift turn, an intrepid thief had hopped on his bike, pushed the bicycle forward with the jerk of a leg, and started pedalling away with the speed of a makeshift tornado.

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He launched into a chase and managed to graze the back of the thief but the bike-thief was obviously skilled at his job as he sped away without a glance backwards. That is just one case amongst the thousands of cycle theft cases in London. Cycle theft is a growing cancerous cell that boldly clings to the ever-expanding city. This fact poses a threat to the effectiveness and success of London — in the near future — as the constant growth of the city will lead to an increase in demand of the already strained transport network. So the race is on to transform London into a ‘Cyclised city.’ A feat that may also play a positive role in the city’s target to reduce CO2 emissions by 60 percent by 2025.

Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) figures show that 23,317 cycles were reported stolen during 2009/10. By now it is clear that cycle theft is a firm barrier blocking the goal to make London a “Cyclised city.” This, and the increasing discontent from London’s cycling communities regarding cycle theft and the lack of action enacted to staunch the crime rates, put politicians, police and TFL commissioners under pressure to act.

The man from the cycle theft case above — the man outside a Grocers who had his bike stolen — his name is Ray. And he posted his story on the comment section of an article titled “Miraculous story of how one Londoner recovered his stolen bike.” Which was featured on www.londoncyclist.co.uk. Ray searched for his bike after it was stolen. He rang around second-hand shops in his locality and left clear descriptions of his bicycle in case someone turned up to sell it. The next day, he went to visit the shops he had phoned himself and on getting to a particular one — the owner had seemed helpful and concerned when he rang earlier — he saw his bike lying there, inconspicuous, amongst other cycles! Ray liberated his bike, went home with it, and reported the case to the police. He never got a response from the force. Earlier on, I stated that MPS figures show that 23,317 cycles were reported stolen during 2009/10. But cycle theft is a heavily underreported figure. The figures could actually be fourfold! i.e. the actual figure could be 93,268. Factors that contribute to this high rate of cases are:

  • Cyclists failed to use secure locking practice.
  • Cyclists didn’t keep bicycle records, resulting in the inability to prove ownership of stolen cycles.
  • Online websites provided a legitimized route for re-sale.
  • Lucrative resale value and easily removable nature makes cycles an irresistible target.
  • Low detection rates and sentences made cycle theft a minimum-risk offence.

To reduce the soaring cycle theft figures. A layered and strategic plan was needed: in partnership with British Transport Police, City of London Police and Greater London Authority, Transport For London (TFL) designed and published a Cycle Security Plan, detailing a range of interventions to tackle cycle theft. Cycling communities also joined to form a dedicated working group. Transport For London provided funding for a MPS Cycle Taskforce (CTF) cradled within the Safer Transport Command (STC), made up of 30 officers with the sole aim of tackling cycle theft. The officers recruited were all avid cyclists—from a cross-section of cycling communities. The team used unique, distinctive, and branded bicycles With those measures in place the agencies focused activity on all ambits of the crime analysis triangle: Target hardening by conducting a campaign to improve levels of cycle marking and registration, and great locking practice:

Bike marking requirements are a simple chemical etch system, easy for officers to apply, easily readable, and requires limited training and no specialist equipment. Officers captures data at the point of marking to ensure uptake by members of the public.

Officers use the opportunity to promote good locking practice. TFL also created the ‘Lock it or Lose it’ leaflet — detailing crime prevention advice and how to make good locking practice a discipline — which were distributed through crime prevention surgeries and community based events. Working with online sites to share information on suspicious activity and put measures in place to make it harder for them to be utilized in the selling of stolen bicycles:

TFL MPS and LCC started working with the major online, classified advertising website to introduce a ‘traffic light system’ to rate sellers who verify personal details. This system actively deflects offenders as suspicious behavior will be easily identifiable. Targeting known locations of high cycle theft rate to staunch cases before they even begin:

The CTF has undertaken a number of covert operations in cycle theft hotspots. These operations are used to target prolific cycle theft gangs. In June 2010, the MPS CTF was launched alongside the Cycle Security Plan. Here are the results during the first year of the program:

  • 22, 064 cycle thefts were reported to the MPS, a decrease of 5.4% (1253 fewer offences) on previous years.13,000 bikes were properly marked by the MPS.
  • Thousands of hits on the TFL ‘Avoid Cycle Theft’ page, detailing cycle theft advice.
  • Positive media stories about MPS CTF and efforts to reduce cycle theft, helping to improve public confidence in the response to cycle theft.
  • With targeted operations, cycle theft was stifled in several regions of London.
  • The MPS had arrested over 149 people for cycle theft, which 46% of them were prosecuted.
  • There has been a drastic increase in cyclers since the creation of the taskforce.
  • A further reduction in cycle theft.

Bicycles are one of the most stolen objects in Finland. Figures from www.stat.fi show that reported cycle theft offences in 2016 was a crippling 20,695. And in 2017 dropped to 19,657. Whilst the decrease in the rate of cycle theft could be encouraging to cyclists, the figures above only account for reported offences. The actual number could be much higher. What’s more interesting is that, as of May 30th 2018, statistics showed that there have been 4,259 reported cycle theft cases and at the end of the year, the number is expected to be around 20,000. That’s an increase on 2017’s statistics i.e. the current system to curb cycle theft is not working!

Cycles are stolen in Finland due to the following factors:

  • Lack of effective locking practice.
  • Availability of thriving Black Market to sell cycles.
  • Lack of attention to the cycle theft sect of transport security.
  • Inability to prove ownership due to a lack of records.

A short search through the internet shows that the high rates of cycle theft is discouraging to cyclists as one anonymous user posted on Reddit: “I have had four locked bikes stolen in a couple of years. I live in Tampere. Reporting to police is futile; they only send you a note which says that they won’t investigate because there are no witnesses.” To battle the cycle theft dilemma in Finland, a similar approach to that which was enacted by the MPS CTF is needed whereby:

  • Enlightening campaigns are held to promote good locking practice.
  • Launching operations to infiltrate the ranks of the cycle theft offenders.
  • Kick starting a campaign to enable cycle marking and registration.

Local cycling communities would need to be rallied — alongside the traffic police to create a specialized taskforce that is dedicated to put an end to cycle theft in Finland. A website called ecf.com recently posted an article titled “Smarter Cycling Series: Combating bicycle theft with technology.” Where a project called SaveMyBike was introduced: In the article, a solution to the epidemic of cycle theft was posited — “The main concept is to facilitate the recovery of stolen bicycles employing RFIDs, extremely cheap digital technologies that do not require any power to function and can be easily deployed on both new and used bikes.” With that in place, an online platform will designate secure areas where bicycles can be parked safely. If a bicycle is stolen from this area, an alarm is activated to warn the owner of the bike, other users of the platform and the police. Policemen and traffic police officers will be fitted with the right technology to be notified via mobile detectors every time they travel close to a stolen bike. A cheap way to ensure that pilfered bikes get reunited with their owners. A connected platform will also be designated as a place where users can visit to report theft cases, upload photos and descriptions of their bike, and alert the proper authorities. If the posited method above is considered, restructured and implemented, the cycle theft crime rates would see an early extinction in Finland, and on a global level.

03 December 2019

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