Bicycle Theft Research Paper

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Bicycle theft is defined as the unauthorized removal of a nonmotorized pedal cycle. This usually refers to the theft of an entire bicycle but can also include theft of component parts and accessories such as lights, seats, and wheels. Bicycle theft can take many forms, reflecting the range of motivations of bicycle thieves. Some cycles are stolen for transportation purposes, others to joyride or to trade in for cash or drugs; specific types of bicycle may be stolen to order; a cycle may be stolen to facilitate another crime – an example of a crime multiplier; or a bike may be stolen in response to an offender’s bicycle being taken, thus comprising part of a crime chain. Awareness of the heterogeneity of cycle theft is important; different forms of cycle theft are likely to demand different preventive responses.

Several studies suggest that bicycle theft is a common problem. However, compared to other high-volume property crimes, bicycle theft has been the subject of limited academic research, whether in criminology or related fields such as transport and urban planning. This is often attributed to the incompleteness of relevant police-recorded crime data where reporting rates and detection rates are both low. Failures to report may be explained by victim expectations that the chances of either detection or recovery of the bicycle are slim. Most lacking is reliable evaluations of what works to reduce cycle theft.

The spiraling obesity rates experienced in many industrialized regions in recent years (OECD 2011) have, among other things, prompted government agencies to promote cycling as a healthier alternative to motorized transport. Opportunity theories of crime would predict that increases in the population of cyclists will be associated with increases in the opportunities for cycle theft. This is a concern given that research suggests that bicycle ownership (a proxy for opportunities), measured at the country level, is strongly correlated with national levels of cycle theft. Moreover, the risk of cycle theft, real or perceived, is found to be a significant barrier to cycling (Rietveld and Koetse 2003). Cycle theft hence threatens to jeopardize strategies to better integrate cycling as a sustainable, health-promoting form of transport. Enriching our knowledge of cycle theft and determining effective ways to reduce it are therefore of social as well as academic importance.

This research paper sets out what we know about cycle theft and the progress made in reducing it. It begins by describing the extent of cycle theft internationally and articulates challenges associated with measuring it. Next, some of the harms caused by cycle theft are outlined, particularly theft as a potential barrier to cycling uptake. Third, the major known correlates of cycle theft victimization are addressed. This is followed by a discussion of efforts to prevent cycle theft, and we conclude by outlining as yet unanswered research questions.

The Extent Of Bicycle Theft

Several studies suggest that bicycle theft is a common problem and that levels are highest in countries where cycling is popular. For example, using data from the International Crime Victim Survey (ICVS) and the European Survey on Crime and Safety (EU ICS), Van Dijk et al. (2007) report that bicycle ownership levels are strongly correlated (r=0.76, n =30, p < 0.05) with national levels of bicycle theft. They find that the risks of cycle theft are considerably higher in Northern Europe, where cycling is widespread, than in North America and Australia where cycling is less prevalent. To illustrate, the 1-year victimization prevalence rates for 2003/ 2004 in Holland were 6.6 per 100 population, whereas in Australia, the figure was only 1.2. Despite this variation, across countries cyclists were consistently found to be around three times more likely to have their bike stolen than car owners their car or motorcyclists their motorbike (Van Dijk et al. 2007).

In the USA, the ICVS indicates that levels of cycle theft remained stable between 1998 and 2004, with a mean rate of 2.8 victims per 100 population. In terms of official crime statistics, the FBI classifies bicycle theft as an example of “larceny-theft,” alongside offenses such as shoplifting and pocket-picking. In 2009, bicycle theft constituted 3.4 % of all incidents of larceny, equating to over 200,000 offenses. This likely underestimates the true extent of the problem as many thefts fail to reach the police because of underreporting. Data from the ICVS, for example, suggest that roughly half of all bicycle thefts are reported to the police (Van Kesteren et al. 2000). The US National Crime Victimization Survey showed a fivefold difference between cycle thefts that are reported to the police and those that actually occurred in 2008.

A similar picture is observed in England and Wales. Police-recorded crime data indicate only minor yearly fluctuations in the levels of cycle theft since 1997, with around 100,000 thefts recorded in 2010/2011. This contrasts sharply with estimates from the British Crime Survey (BCS) which suggest that over the same year, around 526,000 incidents occurred. Moreover, while recorded crime figures depict cycle theft as largely static over the past decade, for the same interval of time, estimates from the BCS suggest an upward trend both in the volume of cycle theft and rates per 10,000 bicycle-owning households. The true figures are probably higher still given the BCS excludes those aged under 16 from the survey sampling frame. Furthermore, viewed against a backdrop of general reductions in property crimes (for both data sources) in England and Wales since 2002/2003 (and elsewhere in the world), the increase in bicycle theft relative to changes in other types of acquisitive crime is more dramatic than the absolute change.

Explanations for the “dark figure” of cycle theft are varied. Interviews with cycle theft victims (Bryan-Brown and Saville 1997) reveal that many fail to notify the police because they believe they are unlikely to apprehend offenders or recover stolen cycles. Insofar as available data can be used to examine this, this notion appears to be justified. For example, police detection rates for bicycle theft are consistently low. In Sweden, where cycle theft is common, only 1 % of cycle thefts result in an arrest (Bra 2008). In England and Wales, sanction detection rates in 2008/2009 were marginally better at 5 % (Walker et al. 2009) but still low compared to other types of offenses. Poor police detection rates may partly be explained by the fact that for many bike thefts, there is little relationship between the offender and the victim, and thus identification of suspects is difficult. Another factor is the proof-of-ownership problem. Many cyclists cannot provide adequate proof that they own their bicycle. A study conducted by the London Metropolitan Police Service found that of the 836 cyclists surveyed, over three quarters did not know their cycle frame registration number (see Halliwell and Brown 2011). This frustrates reunification efforts because should stolen cycles be recovered by the police, there is often insufficient evidence to pursue the case and detained offenders will often be released without charge. Even when offenses are reported, Gamman et al. (2004) argue that many fail to be processed further because bicycle theft is considered a low police priority. A similar observation is made in China where Zhang et al. (2007) claim that the police tend to limit their attention to repeat bicycle thieves.

The Harms Of Cycle Crime: Theft As A Barrier To Cycling

In many urban settings, current levels of obesity as well as road congestion and traffic-related air and noise pollution are generally considered to be excessive. Various initiatives have been proposed to reduce automobile dependency and encourage the use of bicycles. These include changes to infrastructure (such as the creation of cycling lanes), better integrating cycling with other forms of public transport (such as increasing cycle parking facilities at transport nodes), and increasing the provision of cycles (such as bike sharing schemes). At this time the results appear mixed. While cycling remains relatively rare in many industrialized nations (compared to motorized transport), other countries have seen encouraging increases involving a small fraction but quite large numbers of individuals. Cycling in London, for example, has increased by 91 % since 2000 (TFL 2008). Similar trends, albeit less dramatic, have also been observed in several European cities (Oja and Vuori 2000) and in parts of the USA (Xing et al. 2008).

Commentators argue that cycle theft poses a threat to attempts to increase cycling rates – one that presently has received inadequate attention (see Sidebottom et al. 2009). Research finds that theft, and the fear of cycle theft, is a barrier to cycle use. Experience of theft can deter individuals from cycling due to an inability to replace the stolen bike or due to (justified) apathy that it may happen again. This is supported by interviews with cycle theft victims that find a sizable portion of cyclists do not replace their bicycle once stolen and/or cycle less frequently (Davies et al. 1998; Mercat and Heran 2003). Direct or vicarious experience of theft may also increase the likelihood of cyclists’ purchasing cheap, low-quality cycles and associated protective measures (such as locks) due to an assumption that theft is an inevitable “occupational hazard.” Tentative support for this comes from a study by Mercat and Heran (2003) in which half of all cycle theft victims who purchased a replacement bike opted for a second-hand rather than a new cycle.

Reducing cycle theft may also yield wider social benefits. A review of numerous programs to increase physical activity internationally reports strong evidence that as the number of cyclists and pedestrians increases, the frequency of collisions between those groups and motorists decreases (Jacobson 2003). The putative mechanism underlying this pattern is that motorists modify their driving behavior when they expect or encounter cyclists and walkers. To slightly overstate the point, effectively reducing the risks of cycle theft may indirectly contribute to improvements in the safety of cyclists.

The Bicycle As Crime Target

Bicycles are attractive targets for theft. They fit Clarke’s (1999) CRAVED model which outlines the attributes commonly associated with frequently stolen items. Johnson et al. (2008) suggest that bicycles are:

Concealable – Widespread availability of cycles in many urban settings enables cycle thieves to remain inconspicuous when riding away on a stolen bicycle, rendering the crime concealable.

Removable – If poorly locked, bicycles are easy to remove. With respect to theft from cycles, quick-release features (such as wheels or seat posts) that are inadequately secured also require little effort to steal.

Available – More bikes provide more opportunities for cycle theft, as well as a greater demand for bicycles and component parts.

Valuable – While many bicycles are available cheaply, others can cost in advance of $3,000 dollars, thereby constituting a desirable crime target. There is also often an imbalance between the value of the bike and the value of the security measures used to protect it.

Enjoyable – Bicycles offer utility as a form of transport, particularly in regions where public transport is inadequate and/or expensive.

From an offender’s perspective, a stolen cycle can also facilitate further crimes through increasing the speed and area in which they can forage for crime targets.

Disposable – Thieves can easily sell stolen bikes, either “whole” or “piecemeal.” Abundant buyer’s markets for stolen bikes, swelled by the internet, may also provide an incentive to steal.

Correlates Of Victimization

Research has identified several factors that are reliably associated with the risk of cycle theft. Consistent with the national trends described above, opportunity plays a central role. Cycle theft is found to concentrate at locations where opportunities are plentiful. Common examples include in and around the victim’s home, at university campuses, or at transport hubs. Estimates from the BCS suggest that over half of all reported cycle thefts in England and Wales occur immediately outside the victim’s home (i.e., bikes stored in sheds or gardens), thereby constituting the most common location for cycle theft. University campuses often house a large proportion of high-performance and expensive bicycles that attract bicycle thieves. A study by Lovejoy and Handy (2011) at the University of California, Davis, shows that 19 % of sampled cyclists report experiencing cycle theft on campus during their tenure, with 9 % suffering a theft in the previous year. A regular supply of opportunities in the form of parked bicycles also explains why railway stations are common locations for theft. Data from the British Transport Police, who are responsible for policing the railway system of England, Wales, and Scotland, show that recorded cases of theft and damage to bicycles increased by 74 % between 2002/2003 (3,277 offenses) and 2006/2007 (5,686 offenses) and have remained at comparatively high levels since (in 2010/2011 there were 5,859 offenses). Other forms of vehicle theft and criminal damage fell considerably over the same period.

The way in which cyclists lock their bicycles is a further factor. Several studies report that stolen bicycles are often locked insecurely (Mercat and Heran 2003; Roe and Olivero 1993). A study comprising over 8,500 observations of cycle locking events in the UK found “secure” locking techniques – therein measured as instances where both wheels and the frame were attached to parking furniture – to be atypical; other (less secure) ways of parking a bicycle were dominant (Sidebottom et al. 2009). Such findings are important in highlighting the potential limitations of schemes that aim to increase the use of robust locks but neglect to provide guidance as to how they should be applied.

Insecure locking behavior is also likely to be a function of what a cycle is locked to. In urban settings many bicycles are flyparked (Johnson et al. 2008): fastened to street furniture not designed for that purpose (i.e., railings, parking meters, and trees). Flyparked cycles may be at greater risk of victimization because such furniture affords little scope for secure locking (as defined previously). While this is yet to be systematically tested, recorded crime statistics from the London Borough of Camden, England, indicate that of all bicycles reported stolen between 2004 and 2005, 72 % were flyparked. From a town planning perspective, high levels of flyparking may indicate insufficient or inappropriate (poorly positioned) formal bike parking opportunities.

In one of the few empirical studies not to employ Anglo-American data, Zhang et al. (2007) assessed household-and area-level determinants of residential cycle theft victimization in the city of Tianjin, China, using data collected as part of a household survey. Informed by the routine activity approach, they find, among other things, that the risk of cycle theft is positively associated with neighborhood-level crime and deviance, therein taken to be a proxy measure for exposure to offenders. The number of adults per household (a proxy for guardianship) was found to be a significant protective factor against cycle theft.

Research across many crime types demonstrates that previous victimization is a reliable predictor of future victimization. While the evidence for repeat cycle thefts is limited, those studies that are available suggest the same patterns are also apparent. Analyzing survey data from the Netherlands, Wittebrood and Nieuwbeerta (2000) report that prior victimization was significantly associated with the probability of further incidents of bicycle theft. This is consistent with data from Melbourne, Australia, which indicate that under a third of bicycle theft victims accounted for 60 % of all thefts reported (Johnson et al. 2008). Put differently, a small proportion of cycle theft victims disproportionately account for a large number of cycle theft victimizations. Extending this concept further, Johnson et al. (2008) show that the risk of cycle theft victimization displays a contagion-like quality across space and time. Analyzing recorded crime data from Dorset, England, they find that in the wake of a cycle theft and for a period of around 4 weeks, further incidents were more likely to occur at locations nearby and up to a distance of about 450 yards.


Johnson et al. (2008) provide a review of various interventions designed to reduce cycle theft and categorize them as follows: (1) interventions which seek to catch bicycle thieves in the act, (2) initiatives designed to deter bicycle thieves through focusing on the registration and recovery of bicycles (thereby making stolen bicycles more risky to dispose of), (3) schemes to improve the security of bicycle parking facilities (both cycle parking furniture and parking facilities as a whole), and (4) interventions which try to increase the security of locks and/or the manner in which they are applied.

Despite various interventions being implemented, few robust evaluations of attempts to reduce cycle theft are available. Situational measures designed to prevent (rather than detect) bicycle theft through altering cyclists’ behavior in ways that increase the effort and risk associated with stealing cycles have yielded positive results. Two studies evaluating situational measures warrant mention. The first concerns a targeted publicity campaign in which stickers – designed to improve cyclists’ locking practice by depicting how to lock a bicycle securely – were attached to a series of bicycle parking stands in on-street public cycle parks in the UK (Sidebottom et al. 2009). Preand post-intervention observations found modest albeit statistically significant improvements in the security of cyclist’s locking practices at bicycle parking stands where the intervention was fitted compared to the control sites. Importantly this pattern was consistent across two different settings. Sidebottom and colleagues conclude that communication strategies of this kind might constitute a cheap, scalable “quick win” against cycle theft.

The second intervention concerns the design of bicycle parking furniture. As alluded to previously, how secure a cycle is parked is partly a function of what it is locked to. The common Sheffield (or \-shape) stand, for example, makes it difficult for cyclists to lock the frame and both wheels. Many only lock the top crossbar of their bicycle as it runs parallel to the horizontal bar of the Sheffield stand. Alternative designs have therefore been developed in an attempt to encourage more secure locking styles. An example is the caMden M-shaped stand, which is designed in such a way so as to remove the opportunity for cyclists to lock the crossbar to the stand, encouraging the cyclist to instead apply a more effective locking practice, such as securing both the wheels and frame. Thorpe et al. (2012) describe a study in which the impact of seven prototype parking stands designed to increase securer locking practices was evaluated (some examples are in Fig. 1). Using data gathered through 3,563 observations, they report significant improvements in locking practice at the prototype bicycle stands compared to the control (Sheffield) stands. They also report considerable variation between the prototype stands in terms of their effectiveness and popularity.

Bicycle Theft, Fig. 1 Examples of the prototype bicycle parking stands (Source: Thorpe et al. 2012)

A limitation in the above studies is noteworthy. Both evaluations use locking practice as an intermediate outcome measure which is hypothesized to precede the ultimate outcome measure of interest (a reduction in bike theft). In both studies, it was important to conduct an intermediate outcome measure evaluation because if the interventions are not found to change the locking practice of cyclists, then there would be no reason to expect an impact on levels of cycle theft. The reason the study authors did not conduct an ultimate outcome measure evaluation was due to shortcomings in the recorded crime data available, specifically the level of geographical resolution associated with incidents of bicycle theft. Briefly, many recorded bicycle thefts are often reported as having taken place at landmarks, shops, or streets rather than specific locations, and consequently the exact site of the theft event cannot easily be determined. This lack of information may, in part, reflect the low priority status that some suggest the police attach to cycle theft. This lack of specificity is problematic because the interventions described in the above studies were implemented at specific cycle parking sites located on streets where other – nonintervention – cycle parking opportunities are also available. This presents an obvious problem for analysis because it would be unclear whether stolen bicycles were fastened to “treatment” street furniture or elsewhere (be that control parking stands or flyparked). This brings forth two issues. First, such problems are likely generalizable to other settings and should be considered in advance of conducting comparable studies. Second, further research is needed to determine whether, as hypothesized, positive changes in the locking practice of cyclists are associated with reductions in cycle theft.

Future Directions

We began this research paper by highlighting the lack of bicycle theft research hitherto. Various areas of relevance to policy and practice remain unexplored. The following are considered to be some of the most important. They are outlined with the intent of stimulating the reader to initiate further research.

The Stolen Bike Market

It is a widely held assumption that many bicycles are stolen with the intention of being resold for profit. Indirect evidence in the form of low recovery rates of stolen cycles lends support to this claim. It follows that disrupting the market for stolen cycles holds much potential for effectively reducing the problem. Evidence on the use of market reduction approaches (see Sutton 2005) to reduce other forms of acquisitive crime suggests that such strategies are promising. These schemes employ various tactics to make the buying and selling of stolen goods riskier for offenders. Regrettably, little is known about the market for stolen bicycles, specifically the role of online (legitimate) auctions as a means of disposal. The proof-of-ownership problem implies that few bicycles could easily be identified as stolen, which aids the resale of stolen bikes and reduces the risk of apprehension. Research concerned with better illuminating the dynamics of stolen bike markets is therefore required.

Cycle Hire Schemes: Criminogenic Or Criminocclusive?

Cycle hire schemes are increasingly common in many urban settings. The rationale is that increasing the availability of cycles may lead to increases in the number of individuals cycling – the sought-for objective. As already mentioned, increased cycle usage – particularly as an alternative form of urban transport – may generate increases in the levels of cycle theft. Alternatively, cycle hire schemes may lead to reductions in theft by providing secure storage facilities and (as is often the case) by requiring cyclists to register their personal details, including banking information, before they can access cycles thereby reducing anonymity which would otherwise facilitate cycle theft. Furthermore, where financial details are required to use the cycles, this should reduce the rewards associated with stealing hire cycles.

Successful cycle hire schemes could reduce bicycle theft in other ways. For example, if such schemes result in an increase in the number of cyclists, and if the parking facilities for cycle hire schemes are located near to other cycle parking facilities, this may provide additional natural surveillance at such facilities throughout the day. Furthermore, the components used to manufacture cycle hire bikes can often only be used for that type of bicycle. For example, the London cycle hire scheme uses bicycles constructed of oversize, non-common parts which are incompatible with non-hire bikes. An advantage of this is that such cycles are unlikely to be stripped for parts (see Johnson et al. 2008) as they are not typically the sort of bicycle that would be attractive to own, largely because they are designed so as to be clearly identifiable as for-hire bicycles, thereby making them unattractive to thieves who might seek to steal them, or those who might want to purchase a second-hand bike. To our knowledge, no published research has explored the impact of cycle hire schemes on the levels and patterns of cycle theft. Such research could usefully guide prevention efforts as well as inform the operation of cycle hire schemes.

Residential Cycle Theft

Victimization surveys maintain that the majority of bicycles are stolen from in and around the victim’s home. Yet the research which is available on bicycle theft is overwhelmingly concentrated on theft of bicycles from public locations. This asymmetry may relate to the ease with which agencies (and individuals) with the ability to influence the conditions conducive for cycle theft can be mobilized to behave differently; there is arguably greater scope, through levering public agencies responsible for crime prevention and community safety, to manage and reduce opportunities for cycle theft in public places than to persuade individuals in or around their homes to modify their behavior. Either way, there is much to be gained by analyzing the patterns of residential cycle theft with a view to determining practical ways to tackle it.

The Broken Bike Effect

Abandoned bicycles are common. In calculating the volume of cyclists at the University of California, Lovejoy and Handy (2011) estimate that 23 % of total rack capacity was taken up by abandoned cycles. The relationship between abandoned bikes and theft is yet to be empirically examined, but observational research by Gamman et al. (2004) suggests that bicycle parking stands adjacent to damaged or abandoned bicycles are less popular among cyclists, even when located closest to the destination served. Two outcomes are envisaged, both leading to increases in cycle theft. First, they argue that on encountering abandoned bikes, cyclists may be provoked to park their cycles elsewhere, possibly leading to an increase in flyparking (which as described often affords less secure parking opportunities than street furniture which is designed with bike parking in mind). Second, they suggest that cycle parks containing damaged or abandoned bicycles may signal to offenders that this is an area lacking in guardianship thereby constituting a conducive location in which to offend. Gamman et al. (2004) refer to this phenomenon as the “broken bike” effect, invoking the mechanism underpinning the well-known broken windows theory (Kelling and Wilson 1982).

The broken bike effect is yet to be empirically tested, but could be. For example, in a recent study Keizer et al. (2008) examined broken windows theory using an experimental manipulation. Briefly, they observed peoples’ behavior in a real-world setting for a range of conditions. In one experiment, leaflets were attached to cyclist’s parked bicycles, and for one condition other leaflets were scattered (by the experimenters) on the floor nearby. In the “control” condition, no leaflets were littered in this way. The empirical question was whether the way in which cyclists’ would dispose of the leaflets was affected by the experimental condition. That is, would those who discovered the attached leaflets in the presence of litter also be more likely to litter than their counterparts? The results of the study were quite conclusive, clearly demonstrating that where litter was present, cyclists were also more likely to litter than when it was not. While there may be ethical issues associated with conducting an analogous experiment; that is, by seeing if cycles are more likely to be stolen where “broken bikes” are introduced at a parking facility and when they are not, it would be possible to see if the removal of existing damaged or abandoned bikes has an effect on rates of cycle theft.

In closing, it is evident that cycle theft is a considerable problem. Relative to other property that people are likely to own, such as an iPad, they are also valuable. However, they are routinely left unguarded around the home and in public spaces thereby making them attractive targets to thieves. Recent studies have focused on the problem of bicycle theft, but it is quite clear that more research is required if we are to understand how to prevent this type of crime. As has been discussed, if cycle theft continues to increase, it is possible that this will be an impediment to the uptake of cycling and hence the sustainable transport agendas of many countries.


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