Why the police can take away your bike

21st July 2003, Comments 0 comments

Cyclists in Amsterdam know their trusty machines are at risk from thieves. But what many fail to realise is that the police can take bicycles off the streets, too. Louise Doorn reports.

Amsterdammers - and the Dutch as a whole - love their bikes. The Netherlands has one of the highest bike densities in the world. Fifteen million people own in total 17 million bicycles, and an estimated 3.4 million hop on their bikes every day to cycle to school or work.


The challenge, of course, is to keep hold of your two-wheeled friend. Not only is its safety jeopardised by drug addicts, who will steal your bike and sell it on for EUR 5, but the Amsterdam "reinigingspolitie" (police in charge of keeping the streets clean) might be after your trusty steed as well.

Why two bikes are better than one

Many Amsterdammers have one decent machine to cycle to work and one clapped-out bike for nights out in town. The decent bike is often kept in storage; the clapped-out cycle goes in a rack on the street.

They run this two-bike system because it's the safest way to keep their good bike safe while not having to worry about having a cycle stolen on a trip into town. Since the value of the clapped-out bike is often very little, it's likely to be waiting for you at the end of the evening. And if it does get stolen, it won't cost too many euros to replace.

So you think your bikes are safe? Not really. The task of the "reiningspolitie", or so it seems, is to look for bikes with no economic value and take them away.

Bye-bye precious, clapped-out bike.

My clapped-out bike

This writer's lovely but clapped-out bike was happily parked in a bike rack. It was held together by string but it carried me home many times, through rain and along dark alleys.

Nevertheless, an officer from the "reiningspolitie" labelled it "fietswrak" (bike wreck) by placing a fluorescent sticker on its slender frame. It was ready to be destroyed.


Perhaps I could have just torn off the sticker, hoping the police would not have been able find my poor machine. But the reiningspolitie are well organised; my lovely clapped-out bike turned out to be registered on their central computer. The telephone number on the label was the only way to get her off the "to be destroyed" list.

Police officer Ronald Bos says that owners of clapped-out bikes have at least two weeks to call and save their cycles.

But if you're out of town during that period, there is the danger they will take your two-wheeled friend without you realising it.

What is a bike wreck?

Each neighbourhood ("stadsdeel") seems to have its own interpretation of a bike wreck. In some it is "when the cost of repairs is higher than the bike's value", while others go by the rule, "everything that can still cycle is not a bike wreck".

I told police officer Bos that my lovely, clapped-out bike still works. And two hours later a colleague confirmed that a bike in that state does not need to be destroyed. Thanks, but I suspect personal interpretations on bike wrecks prevail at the reinigingspolitie.

Keeping your bike

Meanwhile, bike-lovers might be put to a new test by Amsterdam city council. Mayor Schelto Patijn would like to introduce areas in the city where cyclists will have to pay for parking. Police would be able to take away any bikes parked illegally.

Cyclists can get their bike back for about EUR 23, but will need to start a "bezwaarschrift" (an appeal) to ascertain whether the police acted incorrectly. And if the appeal finds against the cyclist, he or she is made liable for costs.

Of course, the removal of bike wrecks from the racks is necessary, and helps the appearance of the city. But the reinigingspolitie also take away good bikes parked away from the racks. (Bike owners claim the racks are so full of wrecked bikes that they are forced to park on the street - a no-win situation.)

Some cyclists blame the city council for failing to provide enough racks in the first place. The pile of cycles outside Central Station is a case in point. Jos Louwman, of bike rental company MacBike, says the number of clapped-out bikes on the streets is in part due to the police and the city council, neither of which are interested in the problem of an insufficient number of racks.

"It is hypocritical, since the same city council wants to stimulate the use of bikes," says Louwman.

But when no effective action against bike theft is taken (about 180,000 are stolen in Amsterdam each year), cyclists will use their less well-maintained machines. An accident waiting to happen.

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