Germany’s vicious cycle of bike thefts

Stealing bicycles is big business in Germany, with more than 300,000 vanishing last year. But police are still plodding way behind the thieves with dismally low detection rates, and one top officer has blamed cyclists.

Germany's vicious cycle of bike thefts
Bicycles are vulnerable to determined thieves. Photo: DPA

With its ubiquitous cycle lanes and touring trails, Germany should be a cyclist's paradise. But the more popular cycling becomes, the more it attracts thieves to relatively easy pickings with only a slim chance of being apprehended.

"Objectively speaking, the chances of seeing your bike again are not good," admitted detective superintendent Oliver von Dobrowolski of the Berlin police, calling the capital's meagre four percent detection rate "distressing".

A total of 317,000 bicycles were reported stolen in 2013 in Germany of which only 9.6 percent were recovered, according to police statistics.

Many more bikes are also stolen but are not reported. On average, 70 bikes are reported stolen in Berlin each day, while the actual number is thought to be more than double that.

But Dobrowolski also placed much of the blame for the thefts on owners who don't use adequate locks or don’t get their bikes stamped with a security number to help retrieval.

"If you want to hang on to your property, then it's your duty to protect it," he said, adding that the police cannot be expected to keep an eye on everything. "That's not always desired in a free society,” he added.

Bikes chained up in front of schools and railways stations are the most likely to get stolen. And in Berlin, at least, your beloved bike is more likely to fall victim to "lone operators looking to make some fast money," said the detective.

Bike gangs

But while individual stolen bikes are sold on at flea markets and on the internet, specialized bike theft rings also target specific areas and specific models. Using bolt cutters to sever security chains, they often snatch several bikes in one swoop.

The head of the German Cyclists Association (ADFC), Eva-Maria Scheel, saw a group of men steal several bikes after cutting the locks and whisking them away in a van before anyone could react. Her own bike turned out to be among them, she told Berlin's RBB radio station.

Not that the theft risk seems to dent the bicycle's popularity. A survey commissioned by the government last year showed that the bicycle is Germany's most popular means of transport.

Most Germans (52 per cent) occasionally ride a bike, and 72 percent have access to one in the family, with an average of 2.4 bikes per household.

Prices are also steadily growing, with a new bike costing on average €658, making them a tempting target for thieves.

Car theft is easier to deal with, say police, since chassis and engine numbers and electronic coding of parts makes it easier to track them down.

But very few bike owners take the trouble to have the frame stamped with a number and logged.

According to the financial website, Magdeburg, Cottbus and Münster are the cities with the highest bike theft rates, at 1,600 thefts per 100,000 inhabitants.

"In many cases this is the work of organized rings whose customers are in eastern Europe," Beatrix Mertens of the Magdeburg police told the news agency dpa.

The proximity of the autobahn for a fast getaway made the city a prime location for targeted thefts, she said.

The top detection rates are posted in the Bavarian towns of Fürth und Erlangen, with 31 and 26 percent of cases solved.

Police say this is due to redoubled efforts against the thieves, including the establishment of a special bike theft working group and increased surveillance in theft hot spots.

But since there is often a whole network of people involved, from thieves to distributors, well-aimed efforts can multiply results.

"You have to penetrate this [network] and then you come across more and more culprits," said Peter Schnellinger from the police in Franconia, where Fürth and Erlangen are located.

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How the Greens want to replace Germany’s €9 ticket deal

New proposals drafted by the Green Party have set out plans for two new cheap travel tickets in Germany as well as a shake-up of the country's travel zones. Here's what you need to know.

How the Greens want to replace Germany's €9 ticket deal

What’s going on?

Germany’s €9 travel deal has been hugely popular this summer, with an estimated 30 million or so passengers taking advantage of the offer in June alone. Now the last month of the three-month offer is underway, there are hopes that the ticket could be replaced by another deal that offers simple, affordable travel on a regional or national basis.

There have been a few ideas for this floating around, including a €365 annual ticket and a €69 monthly ticket pitched by German transport operators. Now the Green Party has weighed in with a concept paper setting out plans for two separate travel tickets to replace the €9 ticket. The paper was obtained by ARD Hauptstadtstudio on Friday. 

Why do they want two different tickets?

The first ticket would be a regional one costing just €29 a month and the second would be a €49 that, much like the €9 ticket, would be valid for the whole of Germany.

This would allow people who mainly stay in their local region to opt for the most cost-effective option while long-distance commuters or those who want to travel further afield could opt for the nationwide offer.

Presumably the ticket would once again be valid for local and regional transport only rather than long-distance trains like the ICE. 

To simplify the system even more, the Greens also want to introduce new travel zones for the regional monthly tickets.

READ ALSO: Has Germany’s €9 rail ticket been a success?

How would the travel zones change?

According to the paper, Germany would be divided into eight regional zones that would include the Berlin-Brandenburg area, the eastern German states of Thuringia, Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt and the northern states of Hamburg, Schleswig-Holstein and Mecklenburg Western-Pomerania. 

The zones take passengers “statewide at a minimum”, the paper says, for example in the larger states of Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg and North-Rhine Westphalia.

However, as the map below shows, states will also be clustered together to make larger regions.

One of the major draws of the €9 ticket has been the flat-rate system that allows passengers to travel anywhere in the country using the same ticket. This appears to be what the Greens are trying to replicate with their proposals. 

READ ALSO: What happens to Germany’s €9 ticket at the end of August?

How would this be financed? 

As you might expect, the Green Party is placing less eco-friendly forms of transport in the crosshairs as it looks for cash to fund the cheap tickets.

The first way to free up cash would be to end tax breaks for people with company cars. In addition, taxes on CO2 emissions would be increased. 

This would result in “additional revenues for the federal government and the states, which could flow seamlessly into the financing of cheap tickets”, the paper states. 

However, the Greens don’t set out how much money they think this would bring in or how much the discounted tickets would cost the state in total. 

Is this definitely going to happen?

At the moment, it seems that the Greens are the main voices in the coalition government pushing for a longer term travel deal – and they continue to face opposition from the pro-business FDP.

Unfortunately for the Green Party, the FDP happen to be heading up two crucial ministries that could both play a role in blocking a future offer: the Finance Ministry and the Transport Ministry. 

However, with four out of five people saying they want to see a successor to the €9 ticket in autumn, Transport Minister Volker Wissing (FDP) is currently under pressure to come up with a replacement as soon as possible. 

A passenger sits on the platform a Berlin Hauptbahnhof

A passenger sits on the platform a Berlin Hauptbahnhof waiting for a train. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Joerg Carstensen

At a press conference a few weeks ago, he promised to discuss this with the state transport ministers after analysing how successful the ticket had been.

In particular, researchers will want to look at how many people ended up leaving the car at home and taking the bus or train instead.

Though the data on this is inconclusive at the moment, some studies have shown reduced congestion on the roads while the ticket was running.

In a survey of The Local’s readers conducted last month, 80 percent of respondents said they had used public transport more with the €9 ticket and 85 percent said they wanted to see a similar deal continue in the autumn.

Of the options on the table so far, a monthly €29 ticket was by far the most popular choice.

READ ALSO: ‘Affordable and simple’: What foreigners in Germany want to see after the €9 ticket