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Chris Graham has published 21 articles

Let's all steal a bike

Chris Graham finds out the only thing in Oxford easier than reading geography is stealing a bicycle.
Chris Graham on Friday 4th June 2010

The statistics vary but ask anyone in Oxford and they are sure to know someone who has suffered a bicycle theft. Take a look around next time you are cycling through the city: hundreds, possibly thousands of bicycles locked and leaning against walls, lampposts, even other bicycles. For the would-be bicycle thief it must seem too good to be true. Surely no one will notice if one or two or, as we discovered, nine bicycles go missing?

To see just how easy it could be to steal a bicycle in Oxford, we used my own bicycle and locked it up in nine different places around the city centre. With a camera filming surreptitiously, we used bolt cutters to cut the chain and ride away down busy streets, surrounded by students and tourists. All thieving was done between noon and three on a Saturday and Sunday afternoon. Below are some highlights, but the short version is:

Bike thefts - nine
Civic responsibility - zero

Rad Cam Square

The fence around the Radcliffe Camera is a magnet for student cycles, and the building itself is hugely popular with tourists. We leave the bicycle on the fence near to All Souls and I approach up Catte Street from the High Street. Tourists are everywhere. It's amazing how many people come all the way to Oxford and still see the city through a camera lens, including the couple I discover standing right beside my bicycle. They cheerfully make space when I say ‘Excuse me', very politely, and we even exchange some casual banter as I work on the chain. ‘Did you forget the key?' ‘Something like that.' As I ride away, entirely unmolested, I notice that the gentleman has been videotaping the entire experience.

The Missing Bean

How about a captive audience? We lock the bicycle across from the plate glass front of this Turl Street coffee shop, creating a sort of premium seating ground, with table service, from which to watch the show. This time I take special care to approach the bicycle with a skulking gait, looking back and forth over my shoulder, really hoping that no one/everyone is watching this. I'm so intent on looking nefarious that I cut the wrong link in the chain. (The links have to be cut twice, once on each side, before the chain falls away.) It takes over a minute and three cuts to finally remove the chain, all of which takes place in the sunny spotlight opposite a full house. The review is mixed: no one applauds as I ride away, but no one makes a move for the exit, either.

New College Quad

Strangers are what you expect to find walking around Oxford, anyone can come and go in this city's streets. But college precincts are different. Those walls aren't just to keep back the steady march of time. The bicycle rack at New College is just inside the main gates. I wave as I pass the porters' lodge, and they smile right back. As I emerge into the quad a New College student walks past, sees the bolt cutters (by this time I've given up any pretense at concealment) and immediately looks away as he rushes out of the College. My bicycle is at the far end of the rack, as far into the quad as possible, and as I work to cut the chain two male field hockey players approach to lock-up their own bicycles. The one nearest me watches as I remove the lock and start to ride away. Then he understands: ‘Are you nicking that?' (Well done!) ‘You got it,' I say, and wave to the porter again as I cycle away.

Broad Street Bicycle Rack

Desperate for attention, we lock the bicycle in the busiest bicycle rack in Oxford, on Broad Street opposite Balliol College. I heft the bolt cutters onto my shoulder and make a big show of walking through the rack, looking for the easiest target. There is a man locking his own bicycle about ten feet away from where my bicycle awaits. Surely this man will say something; his bicycle could be next! One final look around, cut, cut, the chain is broken and loudly poured into my basket. The man still hasn't acknowledged what is happening. It takes a few seconds to negotiate the crowded rack but then I am away, again, wondering whether this man would have helped cut the chain if we'd asked nicely.

In the end, not a single person attempted to stop the thefts. The most common reaction was to look away or just walk past as if nothing unusual were happening. Is it really so common for a young man wearing bright red jumper, plaid trousers and no socks to walk around with bolt cutters? (I feel certain that people who carry bolt cutters at least wear socks and probably also work boots, unless they are stealing bicycles, in which case they probably wait for darkness and then wear all black and avoid crowds anyway.) While we executed nine successful thefts, less than half could go in the video because - splendid irony - there were too many students and tourists around to make a good video about bicycle theft. Over half the shots were blocked by foot traffic. On one occasion I was literally lost in the crowd, having to fight my way through the crush of a walking tour outside Trinity College gates.

Incidentally, if you wait until the tour is just about to start, the guide will offer you a discount. Even if you are carrying bolt cutters.



Alix Stredwick
18th June at 12.07pm
Hi Chris, You're being a bit harsh on the passers-by! In fact, people DID try to stop you. By confronting you and asking you what you were doing, that was probably the limit to what people should reasonably be expected to do. You're carrying a BOLT CUTER - no-one wants to risk that being swung at their head to save someone else's knackered old jaloppy of a bike! (no offence - I own several).
18th June at 12.15pm
I would love to see a repeat where you lost your 'academic' look and instead dressed 'like a crook' - lose the glasses, put a baseball cap on etc. I suspect you looked just too 'nice' to be a real criminal. There's a sociology paper in this research!
Margaret Hopkinson-Woolley
18th June at 1.29pm
Well done for taking the trouble to show how us all easy it is to steal and how useless the public are. Hope you showed this to the Police and the University Bull dogs. cctv cameras didn't seem to care either. mh-w.
Jane Skinner
18th June at 4.52pm
Depressing, isn't it. I am one of those who would challenge a thief, but many folk are chary of confrontation, or just a bit dim- witted, as would appear from your account. What can we do about it? Your piece came to me from CTC website, so already preaching to the converted there.