Why bike theft is more than just tea and biscuits

<em>Picture: Jason Rogers</em>
Picture: Jason Rogers
As part of the current push towards cost-cutting in public life, the Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales, Louise Casey, this week suggested that the right to trial by jury should be scrapped for various “lesser offences”.

Among these, she included bicycle theft: “Defendants should not have the right to choose to be tried by a jury over something such as the theft of a bicycle or stealing from a parking meter.”

Casey’s position only covers the jurisdiction south of the Border, where she would like to see the less significant cases being heard in Crown Court rather than in front of a magistrate. Bicycle theft doesn’t stop at the border, however – indeed there have long been rumours of a regular transfer of stolen bikes from Scotland to England, with the M74 used as a cross-border contraband conduit – and whether it qualifies as a lesser offence is debatable.

Bicycles can be expensive – it’s not uncommon to come across a keen mountain-biker who has forked out the equivalent of buying a small car or good holiday for their two-wheeled steed, and the more bespoke bespoked machines can cost remarkable amounts of money. Even if the cost of any theft can be recouped by way of insurance, there’s also the level of attachment that builds up between a cyclist and his or her machine.

As far back as 1967, in The Third Policeman, the Irish comic novelist Flann O’Brien noted the unusual extent to which cyclists can bond with their bicycles – and he was writing about ancient tourers and sit-ups, rather than fancy carbon-fibre models costing four or even five figures. For many people it remains a curiously profound connection, to the extent that the theft of a much-loved and well-used bike can be almost traumatic.

Statistics on bike-theft are confusing. The Cyclists’ Touring Club (CTC) flags up two sets of figures, both relating to offences south of the Border. Bicycle thefts recorded by the police rose to from 104,170 in 2008/09 to 109,851 in 2009/10, an increase of 5 per cent. By contrast, the British Crime Survey – which operates via interviews and systematic surveys – suggested a 9 per cent drop in thefts (to 480,000) between 2008/09 and 2009/10, but this came on top of a 22 per cent rise between 2007/08 and 2008/09.

The CTC also points out that only 41% of cycle thefts are reported to the police, according to Home Office estimates.

Victoria Hazael of the CTC argues that bike theft is a bigger issue than the statistics show. “The CTC would like to point out that bikes are worth a lot more than money you can get out of a parking meter,” she says. “More and more bikes are worth over £1,000 and many are worth more than a car. In addition, criminal gangs, stealing thousands of pounds’ worth of bikes, are often responsible for bike thefts. For cyclists who have been victims of bike theft this is not a petty crime.”

For an assessment of the situation in Scotland, The Caledonian Mercury contacted Mike Harrison, secretary of the Scottish section of the CTC. “In 35 years of cycling in Edinburgh I have never had a bike stolen here,” says Harrison, “and among all the cyclists that I mingle with I have heard very few reports of stolen vehicles.

“I have had two Bromptons stolen, one in Nottingham and the other in London – but they have a high resale value. My normal principle was never to leave a folder such as a Brompton outside, but on a couple of occasions when I was more or less forced to do this the vehicle was stolen!”

Precise or even reasonably accurate Scottish bike-crime statistics are hard to find, with the available figures being estimates and often tending to be generalised under headings such as “acquisitive crime” or “household theft”. However, the 2008/09 Scottish Crime and Justice Survey, in its Annex 1, estimates bicycle thefts in Scotland during that year as 30,749, with a confidence interval of 6,086 (ie the true figure is reckoned to be between 24,663 and 36,834). The most recent set of figures, the 2009/10 Scottish Crime and Justice Survey, estimates 26,502 bike thefts with a confidence interval of 4,863.

So the trend looks to be down, but with a large amount of leeway needed with regard to confidence – and 26,502 bike thefts in one year in a country the size of Scotland is still a heck of a lot. It’s around one theft for every 200–250 people.

As to the question of the significance or otherwise of bike-theft, Mike Harrison says that “while the theft of a bicycle can be inconvenient, emotional, stressful, I don’t think it could be described as other than ‘a lesser offence’.”

On the overall scale of such things, when compared to various forms of physical assault, having to suffer watching some opportunistic ned whizz off on your favourite bike is clearly not the worst thing that could happen. But former “Respect Tsar” Casey, in her comments, lumped stolen bicycles in with “the theft of tea bags and biscuits”, and there are unlikely to be many cyclists who view it quite as lightly as that.