As a criminal defence solicitor I regularly represent youths accused of stealing the hire bicycles provided by Transport for London (TfL). The bikes are easy to steal because paying users often don’t park them back on the racks with enough force. Youths come along and pull on each bike and if one comes loose then they ride, seeing it as a victimless crime.
This is regarded as a disorder issue, but I think it demonstrates a desire amongst the young to ride bicycles. The cycle hire scheme was created with the stated aim of widening cycle use, but hiring them requires a bank card. The types of youths I represent are from poor families and don’t have them. As such, the cycle hire scheme is a middle-class service in a diverse area. It serves one section of the community but not the other.
My part of London is served by a segregated cycle lane stretching between Stratford and Mile End stations. It was promoted as a way of increasing and diversifying the cycling demographic, but in this respect it has been a disappointment. At a cost of £20 million for a 2.5 mile stretch, it’s fair to argue that the scheme has not delivered value for money.
If TfL or Tower Hamlets council were to give bicycles to youths for free it would cost about £150 for each ones. This would be a far better investment than the speculative road re-working, because we already know that these youngsters want to ride. The demand is demonstrated by the thefts.
Some will argue that we should not reward crime in this way, but I’m not suggesting free bikes be given to just anyone. The local Youth Offending Team (YOT) deals with kids who have been arrested. They are very good at establishing whether a child has criminal by ambitions or is simply disaffected. They could be in charge of deciding which kids to offer the bikes to.
My former headmaster at Stepney Green school, Jim Taylor, used to boast that he could always predict which children would end up in jail. It was those not involved in extra-curricular activities. Teenagers who reject all such group activities are not evil, just unhappy. They don’t even know they have a problem. But if they don’t address their issues it will have a major impact on their life chances. Bicycle clubs could be a way of doing this.
A YOT scheme in Wandsworth has kids fixing up bikes, which are then given to victims of bike crime. I can see the logic in this idea, but while it is valuable to engender empathy for victims perhaps such schemes could also be providing opportunities for youngsters to ride bikes themselves.
So far, cycling policy in London has seen a lot of expensive investment for relatively small gains. We need to continue to encourage cycling, but must widen the strategy. Doing more to help youngsters who want to ride but, at the moment, feel left out and sometimes get into trouble as a result would be a good place to start.
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