Monday, 26 November 2007

The Oxford Bike Cull

I think my favorite abandoned bicycle in Oxford is the one I saw locked to a fence in the shadow of St. Mary the Virgin church, not far from the Radcliffe Camera. It's a mountain bike whose best days are far behind it. The paint is chipped, the frame is rusty, the chain hangs limply and the front wheel is bent into a shape that resembles a Mobius strip. Some ill-intentioned passerby had to exert a lot of force with a boot-shod foot to deform the rim in such a creative fashion.

You can still make out the brand name of the bike, though. It reads "Optimist."

There are bikes like that one all over Oxford: forlorn, derelict, transformed through neglect or violence from efficient modes of eco-friendly transportation into rusting hulks.

Rusting hulks that take up perfectly good space, for almost as hard as finding a parking space for your car in Oxford is finding a place to lock up your bike. Local transportation researchers estimate that 20,000 cycle trips are made into Oxford's central area every day. In the wild a diverse assortment of organisms--from mammals to beetles to microbes--make corpses disappear. When it comes to old bicycles in Oxford, however, the great circle of life seems not to work.

Then I read in the Oxford Mail that the city had promised to remove derelict bikes. Obsessed as I am with these bikes--whose are they? how do they fall on such hard times? what becomes of them?--I knew I had to tag along.

And so on a recent morning I met Paul Coles at the Covered Market, the 18th-century shopping district he manages for the city. Paul's job takes him between the Covered Market and a weekly outdoor market a few blocks away at Gloucester Green. He knows these streets, and while it would be an exaggeration to say that he remembers each and every bike he passes, his bosses decided he should walk the streets of downtown, choosing which bicycles would be cut from the herd.

“People say pigeons are pests but the abandoned bikes are a real problem," said Paul, 42, as we headed out onto Market Street. In his hand he clutched a quiver of yellow zip-ties. We were joined by another city worker, Mark Massingham, 43. “Tag that," Paul said, handing Mark a zip-tie and pointing to a green Royale that was locked to a lamp post. "That bike’s not been touched for a while.”

Mark cinched the plastic around a brake cable, up near the handlebars. Later in the week a crew would retrace the route and use an angle grinder to cut the lock of any tagged bicycle before taking the bike away. Serial numbers would be checked against registered bikes and the bikes either scrapped or sold.

Paul had several theories about where Oxford's abandoned bikes came from. He said most of the owners are students who paid so little for the bikes that when they graduate and move away they can't be bothered to bring the bikes with them. Others lose the keys to the locks or return to find that the bike's been vandalized and just consign it to its fate. (Click below for video of our escapade.)

We turned on Turl Street and then left at Broad Street, the wide thoroughfare fronted by Trinity College. Long metal racks bristled with bicycles and Paul and Mark moved through them like gardeners dead-heading flowers, palpating tires to judge how long it had been since a bike had been ridden. Some bikes had been relieved of their wheels and saddles and resembled carcasses picked clean in the desert.

A decrepit bike doesn't necessarily mean an abandoned bike, however, not if it's functional. “A lot of people keep old bikes," said Paul. "No one wants to nick an old bike.”

I asked about something I had heard: that gangs of thieves steal bikes in Oxford to sell in Cambridge and bikes in Cambridge to sell in Oxford, creating a neverending pipeline of purloined bikes that are shuttled between the two college towns.

"No," Paul said, "I never heard that."

The iron fence around the church at Magdalen Street was covered in bikes, so many that some cyclists had taken to lifting their bikes three or four feet off the ground and chaining them in place. “That bike ain’t got a lot going for it,” said Mark as he zipped a tie to a shattered mountain bike.

"I’m just amazed at where people put cycles," said Paul. "There across the road, there’s one to the bollard and one to a lamppost." His gaze shifted. "Look at that: That is a traffic light.”

That's one of the things that bothers Paul. Abandoned bikes take up good spaces, forcing cyclists to lock their bikes to street furniture or to lean them against walls in the city's narrow lanes, forcing pedestrians to walk in the streets.

Another city worker, Mick Bennett, had mentioned that he'd seen a ton of abandoned bikes at Carfax, the busy intersection at the far end of Cornmarket Street. Paul was amazed at what we found there: broken bikes everywhere, including a trio of bikes piled on the pavement at the fire door of a bank. Paul was about to zip a yellow tie on one when he recoiled. “These have got blue tags on them,” he exclaimed. It could mean only one thing: The bikes were tagged in last year's cull and were never removed. Paul pulled out his mobile phone and arranged for a truck and two workmen to meet him there after lunch.

A little after 1:30 Malcolm Elliott, 62, and Steve Mazey, 52, arrived. With a pull of a cord, Steve coaxed his angle grinder to life and pressed its spinning blade into the U-shaped lock that tethered a bike to a rack. A shower of sparks danced around his feet. That looks dangerous, I offered.

"I've had me trousers on fire, don't you worry about that," Steve said.

By the time they were finished, Paul and Mark had tagged upwards of 40 bicycles to be removed in the coming week. And by the time the smoke cleared around Carfax, 16 doleful bikes had been liberated from their locks and tossed into the back of the lorry.

Almost immediately cyclists started filling up the newly-empty spaces. It was hard not to think that in a year, some of those bikes would still be there.


suburbancorrespondent said...

Pants on fire? And you didn't ask for details?

Anonymous said...


Great story. What is it with you and bikes however?

cktirumalai said...

A fascinating account, evoking the streets I passed every day for nearly 20 years.
Someone once told me that the best place to get a bike in Oxford was the police pound.
I did indeed see bikes in a diversity of shapes that even Proteus might have envied.
Unfortunately, I read of a doctor who was thrown off his bike by a passing car and killed. He was in the bicycle lane on Banbury Road.

Anonymous said...

Make sure you read last week's New Yorker. There is a very funny story about driving in China. Maybe the Post will send you to China next. You would be safer on a bike in China!

Anonymous said...

That was a very good video. The voice over at the start, the bit cutting through the lock, the costumed guy in the middle. You've been learning a lot at Oxford, eh?

Oh, who was that costumed chappy?

John Kelly said...

That was the Town Crier. Every 20 minutes or so he would walk to the corner and shout out an announcement about the weekly antiques sale going on at the Gloucester Green market. I didn't think his voice was that loud. Not as loud as my daughters' voices anyway.

Maybe I should do my next video on him.

Anonymous said...

Excellent! I was just looking for info on removal of abandoned bikes in Oxford. It looks like the racks at the end of St. Giles (bus lane up to the intersection of Broad Street) have had a cull recently. So many empty racks! Bravo!

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