In 2000 a bid for funding succeeded to try to tackle the more than 3,000 cycle thefts annually in Cambridge (see Newsletter 33). Simon Nuttall was employed to co-ordinate the project until it finished earlier this year. David Earl recently interviewed Simon about the project.
David Earl: Three years ago we said the Cycle Theft Reduction project was almost at an end (see Newsletter 43) but actually it didn’t then stop. What’s happened since?
Simon Nuttall: Central Government funding came to an end, but the police decided to keep me on part time and funding was arranged through the bid partners, the Cambridge Community Safety Partnership, of which the Cycling Campaign is part. £11,000 in the first year and £5,000 in the last two years, plus my salary, was rather less than the earlier years, so we had to change focus. We could only install limited numbers of cycle racks, and spent more time on cycle coding and wall anchors.
DE: Wall anchors?
SN: Brackets bolted to walls which bikes can be locked to. I looked at six years of cycle crime statistics – 15,000 thefts – looking for houses where more than one bike was stolen from the same address. I wrote to all 700 or so of these and 200 of them took up an offer to have these devices installed. It was a very focused campaign to raise awareness that these devices exist. Most people were grateful to have them. About a quarter of bikes stolen are taken from gardens and sheds where people think they are safe. While the free scheme is no longer running, if anyone wants a bracket they can be bought from local company www.tuskstore.com (about £21).
DE: Up to 2002, there had been a third reduction in cycle theft. Did that momentum continue?
SN: Theft rapidly went back up to previous levels. It’s very hard to link what the project was doing to what actually happens, though. For example, a prolific cycle thief was released from prison around the time the project changed and officers didn’t seem to think the increase was a coincidence.
DE: Your focus was on theft reduction and recovery, for example with more racks, the Park Street cycle park, cycle coding and so on. But we’ve also seen reports that cycle thieves are also involved in other crimes. Do you think he police give enough priority to cycle crime, and is it taken as seriously as, for example, car crime?
SN: No, I don’t think car crime is taken more seriously. But the police don’t work like that: they target offenders rather than crimes and look for information which links offenders to the crime. Some people can become specialists in bike theft and establish a supply chain. What helps the police is hard evidence. People often don’t know what kind of bike they have, or even the colour, but if the police find a person with a bike they can recognise from the description then they can do something about it – which is why security coding helps. It’s difficult for the police to commit officers to focusing on cycle theft because, quite rightly, they will always prioritise crimes against the person before property. So the message has to be that cyclists have to do as much as they can to avoid being victims of crime.
DE: 3,000 thefts a year must be a significant proportion of the Cambridge bike population (SN: about 3% at a guess). What do you think happens to all of them? Do they just circulate around the community?
SN: With a lot of thefts what you should do first is go round your area looking for your bike – often thieves just take it a hundred yards up the road and give up. Not much evidence is left at the scene – a cut lock is often taken away with the bike. Nearly all of the information about circulation of bikes is anecdotal – occasionally one surfaces on a London market stall, a van stopped on the M11 is found full of bikes or a police visit for another reason reveals a back garden full of them.
I tried hard to look for patterns in the data but couldn’t find hard evidence of any. Speculatively maybe a third are sold, a third dumped and a third disappear into the ether. But the main conclusion is that we simply need to have more secure places to leave bikes. I’m pleased that two secure cycle parks opened while I was working at the police, and soon with the Grand Arcade development there will be a third. But more needs to be done about cycle parking in residential areas (see Newsletter 60)
DE: Based on your experience in this job, what’s the best advice for individuals to keep their bikes safe? Are some places notably risky to leave a bike?
SN: Don’t leave your bike at the railway station or the bus station! It’s hard to get anything done at the rail station because it effectively has planning blight, though of course we now have a secure cycle store at Station Cycles and I’d advise using it. One school student who leaves his bike at the bus station to catch a bus to Comberton has had three bikes stolen from there. There needs to be a secure storage facility at the bus station, underground if necessary. It’s an investment in the community, and the cost of crime is much more than just the value of the stolen property.
Individuals need to buy locks which are most convenient to the user and least convenient to the thief. At the moment Cambridge people seem to do it the other way around. If it is more convenient you’re more likely to lock your bike. The most convenient are those always attached to the bike. Toughened steel and independently tested locks are least convenient for the thief. Oh, and don’t get attached to your bike.
DE: But if you only have a £50 or £10 bike, surely it’s unreasonable to expect someone to pay £30 for a lock?
SN: Yes. People should expect to pay say 20% of the value of the bike on security measures, including coding. It might seem rash to say this, but I don’t always lock my bike, but I always make a risk-assessment as to how likely it is to be stolen. In the time I’ve lived in Cambridge I’ve yet to have a bike nicked, and it’ll be embarrassing if I do.
DE: Is there a place for a continued project of this kind, or has it run its course?
SN: The police need data to help catch thieves so a technology based project might help. Consider a reliable reporting system via the Internet that bike shops could use to check potentially stolen bikes against. But it would have to be reliable.
I wouldn’t want to continue with the project myself, though we learned a lot from it. My experience tells me that bikes will always be vulnerable and local authorities and planners especially need to be a lot clearer in what they mean by secure cycle parking, and to be a lot more generous in providing it, especially in places like Cambridge, if cycle theft is to be reduced significantly.
DE: Did you ever come into contact with thieves in the course of your job, and what did they have to say?
SN: No, not really, but the police are continually faced with people who do nothing but lie. It’s no wonder that they don’t always believe what you tell them! And the administration of a cycle theft is often not a very productive use of police time.
Cambridgeshire police recently announced that they would be running a three-month long ‘intelligence led’ approach ‘to root out those people who are taking advantage of the city’s cyclists’. They will be approaching people selling bikes through car boot sales, from gardens or over the Internet to verify that the bikes for sale are not stolen.