Every year, thousands of bikes are reported stolen in Ireland. The overwhelming majority of them are stolen in Dublin.
They're stolen from everywhere – from people’s gardens, from secure workplaces, and from where they’ve been locked on the streets.
The Dublin Cycling Campaign estimates that 20,000 bikes are stolen each year, far higher than the 5,000 bikes that are formally reported as missing.
Like any theft, it’s a violation. Good bikes are expensive, and costly to replace.
"We know that, of people whose bikes are stolen, 42% of those people – that’s nearly half – either stop cycling, never cycle again or reduce how much they cycle," Úna Morrision, a spokesperson for the campaign, told Prime Time.
This has obvious climate implications: the more bikes that are stolen, the more people are likely to be using less eco-friendly modes of transport instead.
And, for some people, it’s not just a loss of their primary mode of transport, but perhaps even the loss of a livelihood.
Each year, gardaí often recover thousands of bikes, but very few of these are reunited with their owners. The reality is that most people who have a bike stolen will never see it again.
On a recent winter’s day on Dublin’s St Stephen’s Green, there was no shortage of people willing to talk about their own experiences of having bikes stolen.
Some said they would no longer bring a bike into the city centre. One man told Prime Time that he had three of his bikes stolen.
The Grafton St area is one of the bike theft black spots in Dublin. The other is across the Liffey in the Parnell St area.
How safe are our bikes, even when they’re locked? How sure can we be that they’ll be there when we come back to them?
To find out how good a bike’s chances are of surviving on the streets of Dublin, Prime Time locked a brand-new electric bike on the corner of Parnell St and King’s Inn St.
The bike was not top of the range, but it was attractive and enticing – and probably looked good enough to steal.
It was secured to a Sheffield bike stand. Widely available across the city, they’re recognised as the highest standard of public bike-locking infrastructure.
Much can depend on the type of lock used. Marius Judickas, owner of 360 Cycles in Clontarf, said that every type of lock has its pros and its cons.
Cable locks are the weakest. In the shop, they refer to them as "coffee shop locks", since they are only suitable for locking your bike somewhere nearby. They only provide you with an additional 10 to 20 seconds – enough time to stop a thief in the act if you are close by, but not much else.
Chain locks are good but heavy. Better again is a hefty U-lock, "the most secure lock", according to Mr Judickas.
But these, too, have their drawbacks, he said. For instances, thieves could lift the bike and twist the frame in an effort to snap the lock.
"The lock will not give up, but the bike will be damaged – sometimes to a state beyond repair," Mr Judickas said.
To emphasise the point, he wheeled out a bike that had suffered this exact fate. The frame of the bike is irreparably damaged in two places. This bike is therefore destined for the scrapyard.
Not wanting our own bike to suffer the same fate, we locked it with the simple cable lock, in full knowledge that the bike is less secure, but less likely to be damaged in an attempted theft.
We were not waiting long for the action to start. Some 40 minutes after we secured the bike and walked away, a small gang approached and tried to pull the bike free of its lock.
They were unsuccessful, but returned within half an hour. This time, lookouts were posted on the corners of the street.
It took two of them a matter of seconds to destroy the lock and pull the bike free. They were disturbed in the act and left the bike where it was, but quickly returned to take it.
And just over an hour after our bike was locked, it was gone. It was early evening, it was not yet dark, and there were people on the streets.
It’s not unusual for thefts to happen in daylight hours, in full view of passers-by.
Green Party councillor Janet Horner disturbed a thief in the act on Westmoreland St, just last week, snapping a picture of him and sending it to gardaí.
The most shocking aspect for her was how busy the street was when it was happening.
"I think what I find so frustrating is how brazen it is to do this in full view of people, with the assumption that there is such a lack of interest in the city or lack of care for this kind of crime, that no one will do anything," she said.
For our own bike, the story did not end with its theft.
We’d fitted the bike with a tracker, allowing us to monitor its every move after it was stolen.
After leaving King’s Inn St, it travelled across the north inner city, across Parnell Square and Merrion Square.
It came to a stop along the Tolka river in Ballybough. We know the bike was sold in this area.
From Ballybough, it moved again – this time into East Wall, ending up in the back garden of a house on a residential street.
From being locked to the stand in King’s Inn St, being stolen, sold, and settling into its new owner’s garden, it was all over in a matter of hours.
Electric bikes are an attractive target. With an increasing number of electric bikes on our roads, the stakes are also higher – given the higher costs and higher potential losses for those cycling them, not to mention the higher reward for those stealing them.
Mr Judickas said that electric bikes are currently booming, largely down to the Government’s Cycle to Work scheme, with a recent increase in the limits for electric-assisted bicycles.
"When they are stealing the bike, if it is a basic bike, it costs only €200 or €300. There is not much profit in it, but in the electric bikes, you are in four-digit figures – and it’s a much higher return on those bikes if they can sell it on the black market," he said.
The Government’s Climate Action Plan is banking on people ditching their cars and embracing active transport like cycling.
It’s exactly what student Aaron McNiffe did last year.
"I bought an electric bike. I replaced a diesel car because I was quite conscious of my own car footprint, so I wanted to commute in a more sustainable way. I bought the e-bike, I replaced my car. I actually sold my car during the summer," he said.
It’s the ideal template, with a less than ideal outcome. Mr McNiffe’s bike was stolen from his university campus just three days ago. It had been locked underground with an expensive U-lock.
The lock was picked, the bike was taken. Sometimes, even the best of infrastructure and lock is no barrier to a determined and skilled thief.
For now, it’s the end of Aaron’s e-bike adventure. He won’t be buying another one anytime soon. The kick in the teeth for many people who’ve had an expensive bike stolen is that they can’t replace it with a bike of similar quality.
"These bikes are expensive. You'll find that most people cycling – they're doing it because they want to actually commute in a more sustainable way," Mr McNiffe said.
"At the end of the day, this is going to help the Government actually hit their carbon reduction targets. So there has to be a bit of give and take. They have to support the people that actually want to make a difference, too."
Most people who’ve had a bike stolen won’t have a tracker fitted, or anything on the bike to identify it as being theirs.
Even if the bike is recovered, gardaí rarely have any way of getting it back to its owner or even identifying them.
While investigating the theft of our bike, gardaí were able to retrieve the bike and return it to us, because of the tracker.
It was a great result for us, but we know that thousands of people every year won’t be as lucky.