How English bikeshare bikes are faring in the face of Brexit

Online reviews of the “Bikebox” range from “Nice bike! Very nice!” to “What an absolute joke.”

Once Bixi was seized by the city, bike inspectors installed underwater sensors in each single bike, which closely tracked the location of all Toronto Bixi bikes. Each Bixi bike had a fake id stored on it, which, when combined with the real id located on the bike itself, generated the bike’s personal identifying number. Any association between a Bixi bike and any criminal activity was fraudulent and the fraud would be sorted out with the police.

“We don’t tow bikes,” said Thanassis Kypreos, the Toronto Police Service assistant chief of service. “We’ve never towed a bike and the reason it’s never happened is because the bikes, either before or after, have gotten reported stolen and the police have been able to recover them. Of the 40,000 bikes that are estimated to be in circulation, it could have [happened] with 5 to 10 or 2 to 5 bikes. We have the leads. We can track it.”

When the bike was seized, I’ll admit I was elated to get my bicycle back but I wondered about the 60,000 others — the 70,000 bicycles that still have nothing to do with civil law but which would be the subject of much unwanted scrutiny if their owners suffered a similar loss.

I had already lost two of my Bixi bikes to theft. I’d happened to have the battery, with which the aluminum trim and control panel was attached, stolen from one. I’d had the batteries from the other bike stolen while I was not around, which was a dreadful shame, but I’d restored both bikes, whereas the hubcaps from Bixi in Toronto were still glued to the bikes by a stationery store I’d used to shoplift coffee during college days. I suspect that Bixi’s police scanner would have been more precise than that evidence.

But the “Bikebox” batteries were all much stronger than my originals, and clearly thieves would be reluctant to risk jeopardizing their lithium-ion supply. The batteries alone would justify risking a good-to-plausible theft charge. There was nothing to consider what might happen to the bike when the system was activated.

I don’t envy one of these police chiefs; running a program like this is an incredibly difficult and challenging task. On the one hand, these salvaged bikes are of value, both to the officer and to the city in which the officer works, if only as salve for muddied feelings and to retain the police’s services. On the other hand, if I’ve made an earnest guy mad, he’s probably unlikely to report his burglary, which would displease me even more.

On the city side, if the officers can only track 20 percent of bikes, that’s an astonishing return for two bikes. And they’re valuable because they have value, in the sight of the biker who feels wronged. If they hadn’t tagged my bikes, I’m sure that even I would have gotten my bikes back, and maybe not just to me. On a less positive note, Canada’s Chatham-Kent police have recently sought court permission to seize bikes that belong to people associated with the so-called Project Flare motorcycle club, which they suspect may be involved in bike thefts and other criminal activities.

Cultural attitudes

To be sure, the general public doesn’t share my despair over the I’m-rare-and-I’m-taken mindset that pervades law enforcement. But while the culture of justice in our own country often offers little hope of tangible result, there’s another culture abroad which offers mixed results.

In the Greek-Portuguese community in England, for example, bikeshare use has skyrocketed, and is now considered as much a part of the culture as cars are in our own. The only problem? The government there and the funding it applies to the program is bad enough. The rate of stolen bikes is, likewise, far higher.

In recent months, of course, the rate of stolen bikes in England has soared to unprecedented levels, as economic refugees — some of whom have lost their countries in the wars of recent years — target the Bikeshare bicycles for their traveling pleasure. They’ve had far better luck taking them from Scotland and Northern Ireland, where Bixi is more well-established.

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