The Cumberland Street market in north Dublin is mostly full of junk. At the break of dawn on a recent Saturday morning, the pavements are lined with street lamps broken into parts, battered DVD players, and worn leather slippers for €2.
The most useful items on offer are the bicycles dotted along the street, but the ethical shopper needs to be wary; this market is known for stolen bikes.
Chris, who didn’t want to give his surname, says he has been selling at the market every Saturday for the last 10 years. One of the items on his patch of pavement is a rusty bike.
“It’s not stolen. Nothing on my stall is stolen. You can tell it’s been lying in the garden,” he says. The guys who steal the bikes, he said, aren’t based out of a stall: they float in between and on the roadside, ready to flee when asked to show a market licence.
One boy who looked 14 was standing by the side of the road selling a single silver bike. “It’s €80,” he said. “It’s the second best brand in the world is why, but I’ll give it to you for €70 if you want.”
The bike was a good one. The brand was Giant and three spokes on the front wheel were cut.
More Bikes, More Theft?
Bike thieves have more options now than ever: more people are cycling and they are not just riding rickety cycles but also top quality bikes, often bought tax-free through the government Cycle to Work scheme.
This scheme was launched in 2009, and there’s been a sharp increase in reported thefts since then, says Sergeant Kelvin Courtney, who works to combat bike theft as part of the Garda National Crime Prevention Unit.
“The number [of reported thefts] in 2008 was 3,000 and the number in 2014 was around 7,000. So you can see the correlation,” he said.
Crime statistics are often contested figures. These, says David Timoney of the Dublin Cycling Campaign, are too low – they represent only a fraction of the problem.
Timoney has used crime-victim surveys and international norms to estimate that the actual number of bikes stolen each year is four times the reported number.
If you figure that 75 percent of national bike thefts occur in Dublin, Timoney says, then Dublin’s annual stolen bike count totals around 20,000. He’s planning more research to prove this figure is right and, in turn, create a bit of uproar.
“If the official number was 20,000 and not 5,000 then I think you’d get a lot more movement. Political movement, people [would react],” Timoney said, “5,000 seems small.”
Given the hike in bike thefts since 2008, you might imagine that bike-shop owners are seeing more chancers coming through their doors, attempting to sell on stolen bikes.
But that’s not the experience of Ryan Hanratty, owner of Penny Farthing Cycles on Camden Street. On the contrary, he’s seen a fall in people trying to palm off stolen bikes there. Perhaps, he thinks, it’s a sign that these bikes are being sold another way: online, or shipped overseas.
“Things changed with the bike-to-work scheme,” said Hanratty. “People are buying nicer bikes so it’s gone from cheap bikes to expensive bikes being stolen. You can’t [easily] sell a bike worth €1,000, it’s too noticeable.”
More Theft, Fewer Bikes?
Dublin’s growing appetite for cycling risks being curbed by the security risks involved in leaving a bike around the city. A 2014 survey of around 1,500 cyclists by Dublin Cycling Campaign found that 17 percent of bike-theft victims didn’t replace their bikes, and a further 26 percent reduced their cycling.
“We’re coming to the stage where we are looking at people who are just trying cycling and so it doesn’t take much to put them off,” said Timoney. “Whereas the people that are committed will probably cycle all their lives, it’s the uncommitted group that you have to convince and reduce the barriers.”
Andrew Kelly, an English teacher in Dublin, had his bike stolen four times in the space of eight months. “My first bike was a good one and I didn’t buy such an expensive lock,” said Kelly.
Now, four bikes later, he has cheaper bike and a good lock, but it’s a fixie which he said isn’t as enjoyable to cycle. Kelly has continued cycling despite his bad luck but his experience has affected his cycling habits.
“It has made me less willing to use the bike at the weekends, say to go into town,” he said, “I just use it to go to work whereas before I would have cycled everywhere.”
Dublin Needs Cyclists
Dublin cannot accommodate more cars and so any growth in commuter traffic must come from public transport, walking and cycling.
“We cannot meet the expected growth in commuter traffic over the next decade through more car journeys,” Dublin City Council Chief Executive Owen Keegan said when the Dublin City Centre Transport proposals were published in June.
Off the back of this, the council stated a target of increasing the share of cyclist commuters to 15 percent of traffic crossing the canal by 2017.
The figure now is 5 percent. So, for the plan to work, Dublin City Council needs to persuade more people to get on bikes, and prevent those who’ve had their bikes stolen from getting off of theirs.
They might be able to take some pointers from London. In 2010, the city had reached capacity for private cars, even as the number of commuters grew.
They set up a committee which boasted not only folks from transport agencies, but also the police, cycling groups and planners. Since 2010 when they all started to work together, reported thefts have fallen by 22 percent, while daily trips by bike have increased by 21 percent.
Whose Problem Is It?
Theft is crime, crime is the Gardaí’s remit, bike theft is on the rise. The natural conclusion? Blame the Gardaí. But how much is this a “Garda issue”?
“There is a notion that the Garda are not doing enough, when in fact they are. They are taking this problem very seriously,” said Dublin City Councillor Claire Byrne, of the Green Party. They’re working with Dublin Cycling Campaign, and the council’s transport committee, she said.
This year, the guards have set up bait bikes with trackers and info bikes to alert the public about hotspots for theft. Already, they’ve seen positive results, said Sergeant Courtney.
“Strategically we are doing things and making arrests but it is put back on the council themselves to provide better parking and facilities, and on people to spend decent money on a lock,” he said.
Gordon Brennan, manager for Cycleways on Parnell Street, one of the worst streets in Dublin for bike theft, said, “We have a very good relationship with the Garda and they are doing a lot for their part.”
But one of his employees, John Mahon, was less convinced: “They [thieves] maybe get a slap on the wrists or a night in jail and these guys don’t care. There’s a complete lack of consequence.”
A Planning Problem?
Timoney suggests that urban planners and Dublin City Council should make it a priority to tackle the problem: “They [the Gardaí] are not the only ones who need to work on it; the planners have a real job to do and to be honest they haven’t engaged.”
Byrne admits there hasn’t been much progress in tackling bike theft so far. “We need to catch up in terms of the infrastructure we are providing as a city for the increased number of cyclists,” she said.
Now that there’s funding for a cycling officer, they’ll be able to make finding a way to stem bike thefts a priority, Byrne said.
So what’s the council’s official take on bike theft? At first, Dublin City Council’s press office said: “The issue of bike theft is a matter for Gardaí.”
Later, a spokesperson said there’s an idea exchange going on about how to reduce bike thefts, involving Dublin Cycling Campaign, Dublin City Council, Gardaí, the National Transport Authority, and trade websites.
This “multi-agency committee” is following models used in London and the Netherlands to reduce bike theft. It’s a pilot project focusing on retailers, communication and awareness, planning and infrastructure, analysis and bike registration.
“Because bike theft is a huge issue, Dublin City Council are trying to see if we can use multi-storey car parks a bit better to actually provide safe places for bicycle parking by using existing car-park spaces in the city,” said the City Council spokesperson. But negotiations with car-park owners have yet to begin.
The Drury Street underground car park has a zone for bikes that is locked at night and monitored by CCTV. The survey response to the bike park was overwhelmingly positive. On a recent Saturday, a security guard, who did not want to give his name, said that they don’t have thefts.
I walked away from the security office and through the underground bike park, passing two locked bicycles with wheels missing.