Swifter than eagles. And stolen
First there was shock. Then there was grief. Then rage. There was a moment of shock when I rounded the corner the other night because, no matter how often it has happened to you, it is always a gulp-making thing to look at the railings where you left your bike, and see that for the seventh time in as many years some cowardly little fiend has used a combination of violence and ingenuity to steal it.
There was grief as I remembered what a lovely bike it was. It was swifter than eagles, it was stronger than lions. It was a silver-grey Marin Sausalito with featherlight wishbone struts and, with tyres pumped and a following wind, it was a two-wheeled Desert Orchid, capable of surging from Highbury to the House of Commons in less than 20 minutes.
And after the mourning the rage kicked in: rage at the epidemic of bike theft that is gripping London and the rest of the country – and rage at our society for the lax, passive, apathetic way in which we are dealing with that epidemic.
We treat bike theft as though it were a kind of natural event, like catching a cold or succumbing to some other morally neutral phenomenon.
When someone’s bicycle is stolen the discussion is entirely about what he or she could have done to prevent it. The police talk about the need for tougher locks, and special serial numbers, and the cycling experts give out various bits of anti-theft advice. Don’t have a bike that’s too flash, they say. Try painting it some depressing colour, like orange or purple. Try having a basket at the front, they say, or mudguards, or anything to make your bike look a bit grungy and unappealing.
All of which advice may be well meant, but somehow makes me pop with rage, because we seem continually to be ascribing responsibility for the event to the victim, and ignoring the critical point. It wasn’t some supernatural agency that nicked your bike, or nicked my bike. It wasn’t oompa-loompas or fairies or bike elves. It was thieves.
It was a bunch of cynical little sods who don’t care a toss for private property, and it so happens that, on this occasion, I had taken just about every possible precaution. It was no ordinary lock I used to immobilise my machine: it was a huge steel thing made in Germany, as thick as a baby’s arm, and I locked it to some railings and, as I stood back to admire my handiwork, I noted that both were far too thick to saw through.
So what did they do? They uprooted a large stake that was being used to encourage the growth of some sapling, and they jemmied it into the railings and heaved and heaved until they snapped the bar, and then scarpered with my bike and left their wreckage contemptuously on the pavement; and yes, it is true that this city needs more Sheffield stands to park our bikes, but you ought to be able to lock your bike to London railings, with a drop-forged German mega-lock, and not come back to find that someone has nicked it with an audacity that can only be described as insolent.
There were 80,000 bicycle thefts in London last year, and that figure is probably a gross underestimate. Why? Let me quote the words of a passer-by who came upon me, as the emotions of shock-grief-rage were flashing across my face like a traffic light. “Bastards!” he said. “That happened to me last year, but it’s no use reporting it to the police, because they won’t do a thing about it.”
And even if he is wrong, even if there is occasionally an effort to take bike theft seriously, you can see – on the face of it – why the police do not put it top of their priorities. The scale of the problem is appalling. There are only a million regular cyclists in this country, and yet there were 439,000 bicycles stolen last year, and that is just the ones reported stolen. One cycling expert told me he sometimes hoped the thieves would just give up in exhaustion, overwhelmed by the scale of their booty, unable to find any more punters for their ripped-off merchandise.
But they don’t give up: the internet offers huge new markets; Brick Lane is bursting on a Sunday. The plunder intensifies, and every bike stolen is not just a bout of shock-grief-rage for the victim; every theft is a deterrent to cycling, since it is estimated that 25 per cent of victims decide not to bother investing in a new bicycle.
These are dismal statistics, and yet for the victims of bike theft the police seem to take the attitude of the Amsterdam cops played by Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse: they have solved the problem by decriminalising it.
Suppose they were to find a 15-year-old in possession of my Marin Sausalito, or a roomful of Marin Sausalitos. What could the perp expect? A caution? A stiff talking-to? Some unenforceable ASBO? The double-standards are unbearable, because we all know perfectly law-abiding citizens who have allowed their offside front wheel to stray an inch outside the white line of the residents’ parking bay and boom!
Their car is towed away by the state, and they can end up paying hundreds of pounds to get it back. But when a thief nicks your bicycle, the state just seems to shrug its shoulders and advise you to get more locks. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could change the odds, and wipe the confident smirk off the faces of these varmints? Isn’t it time we investigated the uses of new cheap tracking technology, to fill these thieves with the terror of getting caught? Wouldn’t it be fine to hunt down the middlemen – often drug-dealers – who encourage kids to go on their nicking sprees?
It would be a huge advance for civility and decency on the streets, because little crimes lead to greater crimes, and if you can casually smash a railing to steal a bike, then you are well on the way to burglary and worse. Decoy bikes will be part of the answer; but the first step is to recondition society to grasp this elementary fact, that the problem is not caused by bad locks or weak railings. It’s caused by thieves, and they need to be deterred.