London bike theft in decline after creation of MPS Cycle Task Force

pic: Metropolitan Police Service

Cycling in London has grown exponentially over the last decade. There is a widespread desire to be fit and healthy, and with the prominence of the Tour de France and the crowning of road racing cyclist Mark Cavendish as the 2011 BBC Sports Personality of the Year, riding a bike has become a mainstream activity.

There are economic reasons, too – with an ongoing recession and increases in public transport fares, cycling provides many Londoners with a cheap option to get from A to B.

In 2008, Boris Johnson was elected on a promise of making London a ‘Cyclised City’. In order to respond to meet the future demands of London’s transport system and to reduce London’s CO2 emissions, a shift from other transport options to cycling is required. According to Transport for London (TfL), in 2009 the average number of daily bike journeys was 500,000, which amounts to around two per cent of the total journeys undertaken by Londoners. The Mayor of London’s Transport Strategy aims to increase that figure to five per cent by 2026.

The graph below shows a steady increase in the amount of London cycling trips over the last decade. The figures, obtained from TfL, show an 81 per cent increase in bike journeys between 2000 and 2010. The data represents the number of trips made across all London roads and not the cycle flow on TfL’s road network, which have seen a 150 per cent increase in the number of cyclists.


Bike theft

The dark side of the cycling coin is bike theft – a relatively low-risk, high reward crime which has also seen a steady increase over the last decade in the capital. Figures obtained from the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) show 22,064 bicycles were stolen in London during 2010/2011, down from 23,317 in the previous year. Cycle theft is a notoriously underreported crime, the 2008/2009 British Crime Survey (BCS) suggests a fourfold difference between police and actual bike theft – the amount of stolen bikes over last year could be as much as 88,000.

In the graph below the number of bike thefts have been multiplied by ten in order to compare the number of bike theft crimes to the number of cycling journeys made in London over the last ten years. The graph shows that whilst the number of people cycling in London has increased dramatically over the last decade, bike theft has seen an increase but in recent years steadied, and in 2011 the reported amount of bikes stolen actually dropped compared to the previous year. While cycle journeys have increased by 81 per cent since the year 2000, the number of bikes reported as stolen has increased by 52.5 per cent.


The MPS Cycle Task Force

Bicycle theft is typically seen as a low police priority, its impact and magnitude often overlooked because police often consider incidents on a case-by-case basis. But in June 2010, TfL provided funding for a Cycle Task Force within the Safer Transport Command (STC) of the MPS, made up of 30 officers dedicated to tacking cycle theft. Since its creation, the team has conducted a campaign to improve levels of cycle marking and registration, encourage good locking practice, increase the risks to bike thiefs by working with online auction sites such as eBay and Gumtree to share information on suspicious activity, and targeting hotspots for cycle theft.

According to Sergeant Titus Halliwell, spokesman for the Cycle Task Force, offenders are often lone operators, or work in small, structured gangs of bike thieves. MPS figures show that areas with the most bike theft are located accross north and central London. Hotspots are Kensington and Chelsea, and further east along Euston Road, to Westminster, Camden, Islington, Hackney and Tower Hamlets. These areas have a high density of expensive bikes and commuters tend to leave their bikes unattended for long periods of time. Bikes parked in these areas tend to be of a higher value, typically owned by males who are in their twenties and thirties.

Home to thousands of cyclists and their bikes, the boroughs of Hackney and Tower Hamlets in particular provide fertile hunting grounds for bike thieves. The graph below details the trend in east London bike theft, which has increased year on year, despite the drop in London wide offences over the course of 2010 (the middle line). The number of reported stolen bikes in Lewisham and Croydon remains relatively low, probably due to the fact that the number of cyclists and commuters cycling into these boroughs is much lower.

Sergeant Halliwell said: “At the moment, bike theft is a low risk, high reward crime – bikes are reasonably high value bits of metal which are badly secured in public. If the frame number is not recorded, it is very hard to prove that a bicycle is stolen. Secondly, because online auction sites are used by people in their daily lives, they have a degree of legitimacy about them. It is entirely possible to sell someone a bike without ever meeting them, which makes it easy for bike thieves to sell.”

Before the creation of the Task Force, cycling campaigners had expressed concerns about rising bike theft in the capital for years. Mike Cavenett, spokesperson for the London Cycling Campaign (LCC), said: “We are fully supportive of the Cycle Task Force. Bike theft is still a big problem but we are confident that the Cycle Task Force is making a difference. We would like to see the team expand, to do more to tackle the problem but we certainly think it’s a great step in the right direction. Having a group of officers dedicated to tackling bike theft certainly shows cyclists’ concerns are being listened to. And so it should be, it costs the capital millions of pounds each year.”

Since its inception the Cycle Task Force have arrested 300 suspected bike thiefs, 55 per cent of whom have been convicted (based on 2011 figures). And under Operation Helium in 2010, the Cycle Task Force targeted the Brick Lane area of Tower Hamlets, an area which had a reputation for stolen bikes being available on Brick Lane market. Operation Helium saw 12 stolen bicycles returned to their owners, and led to an equal number of arrests.

Police advise any cyclist to follow ‘the three R’s’ – record the details of a bike, register these onto the MPS preferred property database and report any theft – simple steps they say all cyclists should take so that if their bike is stolen, they stand a good chance of being reunited with it. The database endorsed by the MPS is Over the course of last year, 25,000 bikes have been marked with bike register kits through Bike Register, which allows free public access for cyclists. Bike owners can create a free account and register their bike in a matter of minutes.

In the run up to the mayoral election the campaigning priority for the LCC has been cyclist safety, but the group remains concerned about bike theft. Academic research has found that two thirds of bike theft victims are unlikely to invest in a new bike straight away – the LCC believe that if London’s policy makers are serious about making cycling a more attractive option for Londoners, they should do ever more to combat the issue. In any case, the five per cent drop in bike theft over the course of 2010 while the number of cyclists continued to rise certainly suggests measures are working.


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