Cutting cycle theft in Cambridge

This article was published in 2000, in Newsletter 33.

‘Parkside Police auction around 800 bicycles per year’

In September I started my new job as Cycle Theft Reduction Project Manager. This is a new post, based at Parkside Police Station, resulting from securing £167,000 in a recent round of Home Office Funding. This funding, called the Targeted Policing Initiative , arises from the Government’s aim to be ‘tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime’.

The winning bid was put together by members of the Community Safety Partnership which had important input from Cambridge Cycling Campaign via its Cycle Parking Subgroup. In fact, the bid that was put together came top out of all the bids across the country because of several factors: it identified a particular problem and proposed a solution, it tackled a high-volume crime, it had local community involvement and it set realistic targets for crime reduction.

A lot of research went into the bid. There is no shortage of data: over 3000 bicycles are reported stolen each year in Cambridge and it is thought that only around 33% of thefts in the city are reported. Crime statistics over the past three years identify several hot spots. Some of the worst are the Grafton Centre, Drummer Street, the Railway Station and Addenbrooke’s Hospital. However, cycle theft occurs all over the city, and bikes are stolen whether they are locked to objects or not.

The Targeted Policing Initiative funding will support the Cycle Theft Reduction Project for two years, and the money will be spent on the following:

  • Installing 100 new secure cycle parking spaces for the city.
  • Developing a secure cycle parking area at Park Street car park (with space for 400 bikes).
  • Developing and extending the University-wide cycle registration scheme.
  • Researching cycle crime in Cambridge.
  • Promoting responsible cycle ownership.
  • Two police constables to target cycle thieves.

I started my new job by meeting all the parties involved, which meant walking all over the city meeting college porters and security managers, and visiting the various CCTV operations. At St John’s College we ran a modified version of the bicycle-marking scheme for freshers. This involved taking digital photographs of their bicycles which we will email to them so that, in the event of their bicycle going missing, they will easily be able to give a description to the police.

At the moment, the focus is on setting up a trial of various cycle parking stands. The variety of possible stands is quite amazing, and even though we know that cyclists seem to prefer Sheffield stands, we shall be trying out some designs that look more appealing yet still offer security and stability for a parked bicycle. Most of the stands will be tested in public locations, such as outside the Guildhall. We are still taking suggestions for sites, and would particularly welcome suggestions for sites at places of employment.

A major part of the project will be developing a secure Cycle Park in the lower ground floor of Park Street car park. This area could potentially house 400 bicycles, but it is not yet clear how well it would be used. Access and ease of use will be crucial factors, and it must offer a distinctly greater level of security than can achieved by parking on the street. Before work starts, we will conduct a survey of people who would be likely to use the Cycle Park to get their views on what is needed. Key issues will be the type of stand, the need for lockers and how much they think is a reasonable charge (if any).

Tips for cycle security

Bicycles in Cambridge go missing for all sorts of reasons. Some are ‘borrowed’ at night to provide a ride home. Some are stolen during the day and sold within the city to fund a hard drug habit. They are stolen by gangs in vans and taken to London markets. Leave your good bike unlocked for a couple of minutes while you help someone bump-start their car and you might find a cheeky blighter has swapped it for their wreck.

Thieves know which are the weakest locks. Thin cable locks are among the worst. Cheap combination locks can sometimes be pulled apart simply by drunken brute force. Some padlocks spring open when hit with a hammer. D-locks can be car-jacked apart or, on the weaker models, the cylinder barrels can be broken. In general, the resistance of a lock to attack increases with the amount it costs. See for recommendations.

In one incident in which a number of bicycles went missing from a college, the thieves left behind those that were registered. Of course, this may only indicate that owners who had bothered to register their bicycles were the most concerned about security and had locked their bicycle properly in the first place. Nevertheless, there does appear to be other evidence that a marked bike is more secure.

Parkside Police have to auction around 800 bicycles per year because bicycles can’t be returned to their owners. I think that many of these are ‘donated’ to the city by students or visitors who simply leave them at the railway station on their last day here.

Rather than just providing more facilities, I think that getting people to improve the way they treat their bicycles will have the biggest effect on the crime figures. It is a similar relaxed attitude towards road traffic law which is partially responsible for giving cyclists such a tarnished reputation in Cambridge, despite the enormous economic and other benefits bicycles bring.

Being so involved with bicycles as a campaigning interest and as a job can be a bit much at times but, so far, I am enjoying the opportunity!

Simon Nuttall