The Netherlands and Amsterdam in particular are global examples of how to make the bicycle the basis of a healthy and sustainable transport system.
But each year about half a million of them are stolen.
It might seem that stealing such an amount in a country of just 17 million inhabitants should compromise the entire model.
However, original research that has followed a hundred GPS-equipped bikes shows that thieves don't take them very far.
In fact, after a few days they return to serve as a means of transport around the city, although mounted by someone else.
Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT, in the United States) and the Delft University of Technology (Netherlands) set out to find out where so many stolen bicycles went.
In Amsterdam alone, between 28,500 (according to city council data) and 80,000 (estimated by cycling associations) are stolen.
Theft is so commonplace that many of them are not even reported, so the figure could be closer to the second than to the first.
Fábio Duarte, principal investigator of the Senseable City Lab at MIT, a laboratory that aims to take the pulse of cities with technology and apply it to urban design, says that they started with a prejudice.
As with stolen vehicles and other items, “we thought they were being taken abroad, perhaps to eastern countries,” he says.
But they were much closer.
The investigation, which has had the collaboration of the Amsterdam City Council, has confirmed that many bicycles are stolen in the Dutch city.
In his case, they distributed a hundred of them through some of the areas of concentration of bikes, such as squares or near stations.
They all had padlocks and they took great care that their appearance and condition did not make them stand out: the 100 were second-hand, but there were a dozen brands and in all states, from rusty to practically new.
They had a GPS hidden in the light or under the saddle and tracked them between June and December 2021. The result, published in the scientific journal PLoS ONE
is that the thieves took 70 of them.
“The mafias steal them, but they sell them to the inhabitants of Amsterdam.
It is even possible that someone buys a bike that was stolen some time ago”
Fábio Duarte, Principal Investigator at MIT's Senseable City Lab, United States
"Where you leave the bike is key," says Duarte.
“The more there are, the more likely it is to be stolen,” he adds.
They believe that the logic of this data is that bicycle thieves take advantage of the accumulation so that their theft goes unnoticed.
"If there are only a few, there is always the possibility that the owner is nearby," Duarte justifies.
Other data from the study are relatively obvious: robberies are more common in the vicinity of stations and other points of passage for many people, and the vast majority occur at night.
GPS tracking allowed them to answer the question asked by scientists, but also by municipal authorities: where are they going?
Well, only two of the 70 stolen bicycles left Amsterdam or its surroundings and none left the country.
After spending a few days without moving or with random movements, the bikes are located following a pattern of two trips with the same round trip.
That is, another Amsterdamer is using it to go to work and back home.
“We thought that the mafias were stealing them, but we didn't know if they were taking them to another country,” says Duarte.
In fact, from the online analysis of the data, they deduce that at least a third of the bicycles had been stolen by some mafia.
“What happens is that the mafias steal them, but they sell them to the inhabitants of Amsterdam.
It is even possible that someone buys a bike that was stolen some time ago”.
Two of the hundred bicycles used in the social experiment.
Equipped with a hidden GPS, they were distributed throughout the city with its corresponding padlock.
70 were stolen.MIT's Senseable City Lab
Amsterdam was a pioneer 50 years ago with an experiment that sought to universalize the use of bicycles in a city that was drowning in traffic.
To do this, they launched the white bicycle project, with a fleet of 10,000 bikes distributed throughout the city and that anyone could use.
It was the first shared mobility system, decades before it was even talked about.
But it turned out to be a failure and the plan fell into the so-called tragedy of communal goods: since they belonged to everyone, they belonged to nobody and many ended up destroyed, while others were taken home by thieves and painted a different color.
The paradox now is that theft gives value to the bicycle and the thieves protect them from falling into that tragedy.
Regarding the theft of the bicycles, Titus Venverloo, a researcher at the University of Delft and MIT and co-author of the study, comments that from the analysis of the trajectories of the stolen bikes, they notice "that they return to a regular pattern of mobility quite quickly." .
This implies that most are used directly or are sold quickly, "so these bicycles are once again available for general mobility in the city," he adds.
He also highlights a positive aspect of theft: "The wide availability of cheap bikes from dubious origins also seems to encourage the adoption of the bike in the city, since the mode of transport is very accessible to anyone."
And he points out a third aspect: “In addition, due to the great cycling culture in the Netherlands,
the citizens of Amsterdam are almost used to the problem of bicycle theft.
So they can buy another bike quickly.”
So his conclusion is that “the effect of bicycle theft on the mobility system of a city is not great, however, the effect on the victim of bicycle theft is evident”.
"These results connect with the approaches of certain anarchist groups in the Netherlands that, in the 80s, postulated the theft of bicycles"
Pedro Malpica, sociologist expert in sustainable mobility
Pedro Malpica, a sociologist who is an expert in sustainable mobility, comments that “these results connect with the approaches of certain anarchist groups in the Netherlands that, in the 1980s, postulated the theft of bicycles.
It was not so much because of their contempt for private property, but because they were convinced that it was a viable system of sharing the means of transport”.
But Malpica, who did her thesis on cycling mobility in the transition to a new city model, studying it in depth in Seville, also remembers that theft can have an undesired effect: "whoever starts using the bicycle and it is stolen, gives up to continue commuting by bicycle.
Fortunately, he adds, his field work would show that the existence of public bike systems alleviates this problem.
“They don't want to buy a second one after the first robbery,
but they do not abandon urban cycling ”.
Both Malpica and Duarte believe that if the police prioritize the persecution of the mafias, it would be a measure to encourage the use of bicycles as urban transport.
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