Yesterday I visited friends in Cologne and my bicycle broke down on the way without warning (the left pedal froze up). So I decided to park the bike near the Cologne Central Station so I could take a train to my destination. I was running late, so I didn’t have time to figure out how to use the ‘official’ Radstation bike parking, which is indoors. I parked my ride in a legal, official bike-parking stand next to the bus station and taxi rank, and went about my business, with a feeling of unease, since my bike was a pretty valuable Bulls Cross RS 1. Nevertheless, I reassured myself that at least the bike was in a highly-trafficked area. I looked around for video surveillance, but saw none.
When I got back a few hours later, the bike was gone, of course. Bike theft is endemic in Germany, so it wasn’t a stunning surprise, but it still makes one’s blood boil. I have dreams of finding someone riding the bike, tearing them off my precious steed, and inflicting exquisite tortures on them. But the bike’s almost certainly in the back of some truck, halfway to Latvia by now.
Fortunately, Germany’s crack police agencies have a sophisticated and well-funded system for recapturing stolen bikes called “BikeFinder 3.0”, so I’ll surely get it back in a few weeks. Just kidding! The chance of recovering a stolen bike in Germany hovers just over 0% (g). Once your bike’s gone, it’s gone, baby. German cops have much bigger fish to fry — in the 2000s, state and federal governments started slashing police budgets, anticipating a continuing decrease in crime caused by an aging society. Then, starting in 2015, federal politicians decided to allow almost a million young males from the most unstable parts of the globe into Germany without any background checks. The rest, as they say, is history (German prisons now have the highest proportion of foreign-born inmates in history (g)).
Endemic bike theft represents a larger policy failure. Germany wants to meet climate goals and reduce pollution by encouraging people to ride trains and bikes. But they’re simultaneously allowing trains and bikes to become ever more inefficient and risky. The German national train system, Deutsche Bahn, has been spiraling into crisis for years owing to relentless budget-cutting. On-time performance has decreased year after year even as ticket prices rise. Security on trains has also deteriorated, with attacks on train personnel sharply increasing (g) and many local train companies introducing police-like bodycams (g). After the first unpleasant incident on a late train, you might just chalk it up to chance. But after the 10th, or 20th, you will decide that investing in a car now makes sense.
German cities have created an increasing number of bike paths and bike infrastructure, but what good are those when you can’t park your bike safely, and have zero chance of recovering it after theft? If the chance of your bike being (1) stolen and (2) never recovered is more than negligible, and if you need ever-more expensive and inconvenient devices to prevent theft, the attractiveness of bicycles as a form of transport slowly erodes. And you’ll think longer about buying a car. After all, it’s getting harder and harder to steal cars.
German politicians don’t seem to perceive the links between safety and security and transportation choices. One sign of this is the embittered resistance to video surveillance. Video cameras are pretty much ubiquitous in private spaces in Germany because it’s cheap and it works. But when it comes to installing video surveillance in public areas, some left/Green politicians still trundle out antique arguments about Orwellian privacy loss and Stasi spying. It never seems to enter their minds that the trivial loss of privacy caused by your image being captured for a few fleeting seconds might be outweighed by the documented proof that video surveillance reduces crime and disorder and increases the reliability and success of criminal prosecutions.
There will never be 100% security against bike thefts, but it should be easily manageable to provide security for an open, public bike parking structure on public property with 100 bikes attached to it, like the one I used. Point some cameras at it, have someone actually looking at those cameras, and post large notices to announce the fact that it’s under camera surveillance. Even better, add an armed cop to patrol the public bike-parking areas every 30 minutes or so, on the lookout for suspicious behavior.
And right about now, with the loss fresh in my mind, I would be fine with giving that cop the right to beat bike thieves to death on the spot, and then hang their lifeless, flayed corpses on a nearby gibbet.
You won’t stop every bike theft, but you can at least offer ordinary citizens the reassurance that if they park a bike at a large open bike-parking lot near a main train station, it will be there when they get back. Shouldn’t that be the least we expect for the taxes we pay?