Let’s re-criminalise bicycle theft in London

Once again, my bike has been stolen. That is the fifth bike in ten years; I’ve spent more than £2000 on bikes over that time. It’d be cheaper to rent a bike from the sodding criminals, the way I top my Oyster card (except Transport for London purports to be running a legitimate business).

The bicycle is not a viable mode of transport in London currently: you need to live somewhere where you can keep it indoors (effectively impossible if you live in a tiny flat up four flights of narrow stairs), and you can only cycle to places where you can also lock it indoors. If you don’t live somewhere you can lock it up, and use the bike for any sort of casual transport rather than commuting to a single location, it’ll get nicked. Effectively, you have to have a car, or use public transport. I simply will not accept this.

There is an inexhaustible supply of bike thieves and bikes: small-scale organised crime and junkies will always be with us, but the price per kilogramme of a bike is so low that large scale organised criminals are not interested. The problem is that the police, the courts and the Crown Prosecution Service have decriminalised bike theft: unbelievably, thieves are let off with a caution, the courts apparently are not handing down custodial sentences even when someone is caught with twenty stolen bikes, so understandable the CPS doesn’t bother. The real problem with the CPS is that they don’t economically model the effects of their enforcement decisions: they decide “can I win this case?”, not “what level of prosecutions is necessary to prevent the country slowly descending into anarchy?”.

What can be done?

We need to crowdfund private criminal prosecutions of bike thieves. If the thieves know that there’s a large group of hostile cyclists literally choosing cases to prosecute at random, and automatically demanding custodial sentences, the ones who are not drug addicts will diversify into other activities.

We need much better datasets about bicycle theft. People do not report thefts to the police because it is a waste of time; that means the data is not captured at all: private initiative can at least capture some of this data, even without a view to enforcement. The datasets will allow serious apps (like the tongue-in-cheek iSteal) to help cyclists minimise the incidence of crime.

Cycling campaigns need to adopt a much more critical attitude towards the police. Currently, bicycles in London have been de facto removed from the system of private property. This is arguably a violation of the ECHR, but don’t expect Shami Chakrabarti to mount the barricades over it any time soon. Basically they’ve nationalised our bikes and given them away to the bad guys; whatever will they think of next? Oh yeah, our medical records.

The police’s discretion to caution bike thieves needs to be revoked; I think this can be done by making theft of bikes chargeable only by indictment. I used to object to instrumentalisation of the criminal law, and advance this proposal as an example of what principled people start to think once we head down this slippery slope. If “first-time” offenders can get off with a caution, that doubles the number of bikes at risk.

It may be viable to establish commercial bicycle-theft rapid response and investigation services.

Whatever the case, it is not acceptable in a democracy for a small group of criminals to steal a hundred thousand bikes a year and effectively deny a large group of citizens a healthy and environmentally sound lifestyle choice.

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