On the Scene: London's Unstoppable Scooter Gangs
14 August 2017 - RideApart
Scooter-riding attackers commit thousands of crimes each year, according to police
(Our rider-incognito, Randle, is based in London. Though the United Kingdom's capital city – and surrounding metro area – is home to roughly 14 million people it is a relatively low-crime part of the world. Or, at least, that has been the case in recent decades. Lately, though, it feels things have been changing thanks to a plague of seemingly unstoppable scooter-using criminals. We asked Randle to write up what the mood is like at the moment in 'The Big Smoke,' and what – if anything – local authorities are doing about it. –Ed)
I was on the very last leg of journey back to London, returning from a long trip through the Alps on a KTM 1290 Super Duke GT dressed in full-on "steal me" orange fairings. For once, aware of some road works on my usual route, I'd chosen to take a detour. Instead of going through Croydon (in the southern part of Greater London) to get home, I opted to swerve further south, aiming to follow the M25 to the A3 and cruise all the way into central London. That seemed like a much better option than hacking and slashing my way through lots of suburban stop-start traffic, no doubt made even worse by whatever Thames Water were digging up the roads for.
Probably daydreaming about that cup of tea and well-deserved nap a bit too deeply, I missed the exit to the A3 and ended up winding through Surbiton in the direction of Kingston (These boroughs are less than 5 miles from the offices of RideApart sister site Motor1 UK –Ed). So, I found myself fighting through heavy traffic after all. I cursed myself, but nevermind. After all, the 1290 Super Duke GT makes light work of traffic with its decent steering lock, self-cancelling indicators, and myriad things done on your behalf.
Waiting at yet another light, I was looking around, as you do, checking the dashboard display for trip info – or whatever it is we all preoccupy ourselves with when waiting for the magical green light to do its thing – when I noticed an oncoming white Yamaha TMAX weaving between cars at speed. A faint alarm went off in my head; the TMAX, you may know, is the London thief's vehicle of choice. Here was one being ridden aggressively two-up in South-ish London.
Just as the TMAX rolled past, I flipped up my visor to get a proper look. Both rider and pillion were giving me and the big KTM their full attention. This was not the normal, "Hey, sweet bike, man," kind of attention either. As they passed, I spotted the tell-tale absence of a license plate on the TMAX. And almost as if auditioning for a part on a TV show, the scooter's rider and passenger were wearing the stereotypical British thief uniform of track suit and sneakers. Needless to say, the alarm bell in my head got louder.
Adjusting the righthand mirror so I could watch them continue down the road, I saw them make a U-turn and speed back toward me.
You may have heard about the wave of bike thefts and bike hijackings hitting London. In the past, I've told myself that since I'm more often than not riding a bike that belongs to someone else (ie, a press bike from a manufacturer), I would just jump off said motorbike if confronted by knife- or acid- or fire-extinguisher-equipped baddies. Yes, that's an attitude that will result in a long, awkward conversation with a manufacturer's PR team but it's definitely not worth risking health, life or other possessions over what is really just a glorified lump of metal.
"They" can have it, I've told myself. Even if – as in this case – it'd be a particularly gorgeous bike to lose. And certainly my willingness to relinquish the motorcycle means the whole thing would go down calmly and efficiently, in an almost business-like transaction, right? Definitely no stabbing. Or punching. Or being scalded by acid. Or taking of anything that actually belongs to me – not even my Starbucks loyalty card. Right?
With one eye on the red light ahead of me, and one eye on the mirror – watching the TMAX and its idiot cargo buzz toward me – I found myself questioning my hitherto untested response to crime. My mind was racing away at 100,000 rpm, trying to work out what to do. Then my adrenal gland delivered a shot of the stuff to my brain and everything felt a bit slow motion – much like that moment before a fight kicks off in front of you.
"This isn't my bike," the rational part of me tried to point out. "They'll take it, but I'll be fine. I'll lose all the clothes and gear that are in the panniers and tank bag, but..."
I found myself slipping into first gear as the TMAX got bigger and bigger in my mirror. It pulled up alongside me, the front wheel roughly level with the tank of the KTM so as to be not fully visible in my mirror or my vision. Clever, they must've done this before. I wheeled the KTM back slightly to ensure I can see them. Just as I did, the rider executed a move forward and inward toward me. I assume the plan was to block my exit path, except he didn't quite manage thanks to my having backed up. Nonetheless, the passenger started to jump off and suddenly... VAHWHAM!
Some folks will tell you that the 1290 Super Duke GT's 170 hp is excessive. But in a moment like that, watching whatever was about to happen or what might have happened evaporate in my mirror, it was certainly nice to have that much power. As the TMAX had approached I'd been eyeing the road ahead; I had a clean exit through the lights, despite their still being red, and I took it. But it wasn't over. A glance in my mirror showed the passenger was back on the TMAX and it had decided to give chase.
Don't ever speak ill of the 503cc TMAX. That thing packs a punch, even when fully loaded with two meatheads. The road to the A3 continued long and straight, and I knew that the speed cameras ahead were all forward-facing (ie, they could not read the bike's license plate), so I wasn't too worried about getting a ticket while fleeing unknown physical harm. I definitely wasn't bothered about riding at well over the posted speed limit, either. Meanwhile TMAX and Co. were still following. I went into movie mode: passing other cars and bikes left, right, and centre, even on the inside if I needed to, and paying little attention to the fact this was all horribly dangerous. A driver honked in anger, completely unaware of the TMAX that was still in my mirrors, following my lines.
But more power is more power, and soon the KTM had created a gap. A few more dangerous passes later – and, I'll admit, ignoring two more sets of red lights, and taking a trip up the sidewalk – and the TMAX was a long way back. Still, to be sure I was in the clear I carried on at pace; I darted in front of a bus to provide some visual cover then emergency-braked and turned down a residential side road. I parked the KTM between two cars, hit the kill switch, and crouched down out of view.
It took roughly 10 minutes for the adrenaline shakes to wear off. That was possibly the most irrational and insane thing I've ever done or had to deal with on two wheels. I didn't see the TMAX again. As I crouched there, it struck me how when these encounters happen, the primeval part of your brain completely takes over. Things go into slow motion and nothing works out anywhere like you'd imagine it to.
"Oh you want the bike? Righto! If you could just give me a second to jump off old chap, it's all yours!" – That is is patently not how it goes down. In reality, or at least in my case, you get out of there at all costs and ride with zero regard for anyone, including yourself. Adrenaline's a powerful thing.
I'm not hugely proud of what I did, but I'm equally annoyed that if those speed cameras had been facing in such a way as to be able to read my license plate, I'd probably be facing hefty fines for speeding. I might have had my license taken away from me as a result. And that's much more punishment than the two twits on the TMAX would have seen.
My Experience Was Not Unique
London is currently enduring a significant crime wave, powered almost exclusively by stolen scooters and motorcycles. Police, politicians, and the press have coined it "moped enabled crime," but it goes much deeper than that. It actually has very little to do with mopeds/scooters/motorcycles; they are just the result of a number of very specific circumstances. Either way, it's a very big deal: crimes involving two-wheeled vehicles have shot from 1,000 in 2014, to more than 8,000 in 2016. According to the Met (the shorthand name for the police force charged with protecting the London metropolitan area), 2017 is on track to see at least twice as many crimes as the year previous.
The thing with scooters is they're fast, easy to ride, and can carve through traffic like no other vehicle. That alone makes them perfect for committing crime in a crowded metropolis, but what's causing this sudden escalation in crime? Obviously the crimes themselves aren't new; very coincidentally, my uncle had a Triumph stolen in the '70s when he was a student at Kingston University (near the area where my incident occurred). Robberies, stabbings, and even acid attacks are also not new. Neither is the concept of scooters in cities. So why is there now suddenly such a big problem that a typical bloke can't ride through the suburbs on a Friday afternoon without fear of being hijacked? I have a few theories.
The police can't or won't give chase:
You may have heard of an incident involving a lad called Henry Hicks in December 2014. Suspected of drug dealing, he failed to stop for police in an unmarked car and an unauthorized pursuit took place. He crashed and died. The officers involved have been suspended and are facing gross misconduct charges. Following Hicks' death, police broadly implemented what has become known amongst bikers as a "no chase" policy. In truth, it's more complex than that, but that's what the end result is: in only the rarest circumstances will police chase a suspect on two wheels.
Why? Fears over safety for the suspect and the general public during the pursuit, and the fact that police officers can be tried as individuals if they break the law themselves (by driving dangerously) while carrying out a pursuit. In short, officers aren't willing to risk their careers and livelihoods over a couple of oiks on a stolen TMAX. Meanwhile, in the opinion of some people in the United Kingdom, the justice system does not properly punish the small percentage of thieves who do somehow end up being caught. And many of the people using scooters to snatch phones and commit other crimes are too young to be tried as adults, so they won't face the full force of the justice system anyway.
There's plenty to go around:
A reason that I rarely see considered is the sharp rise in the amount of scooters in big cities. As capacity on roads and public transport fails to meet the demands of population growth (If you like cuddling hundreds of sweaty strangers you'll love Britain's pathetic public transportation infrastructure), more and more commuters are turning to scooters.
Lots of entrepreneurs are as well. Food delivery services such as Uber Eats, Just Eat, and Deliveroo have exploded in recent years. We've had pizza and Chinese food delivery for decades but these services bring all of London's amazing eateries to your door, relying on an Uber-style structure of contractor delivery staff. Working for one of these delivery services is a great way for a young person to earn money on his or her own schedule, and all they need is a scooter. Cheaply available thanks to a recent flood of China-manufactured vehicles, a brand new scooter can cost as little as £700 – roughly two weeks' pay for the average Londoner. Meanwhile, getting licensed to ride one can be as simple as taking a one-day course. So, with very little investment you can be on the road and earning money according to your schedule.
Collectively, the above and other changes in the British lifestyle have added thousands upon thousands of mopeds and scooters that were not on our roads even a decade ago. And when they're parked, they're especially ripe targets for the gangs who steal (and use) them.
Batteries, or more specifically, battery technology, has improved dramatically in recent years and that has played its part. The pressure we've collectively put on smartphone and laptop manufacturers to improve battery life has had a trickle-down effect: other battery operated devices benefit, too. Heavy duty power tools are now available in battery-operated versions that can be just as powerful as their plug-in equivalents. Not too long ago, a bike thief might be limited to what he could free using a pair of bolt cutters, which meant you could all but guarantee bike protection with a good, high-quality chain. Now, however, with cordless angle grinders the world's your oyster; there's no lock or chain that can't be defeated, no matter the size or strength.
A lack of security:
Generally, bike security isn't taken seriously by the majority of riders, especially those just visiting the city – and particularly those who come to London completely unaware of the problem at the moment (As stated above, London is generally perceived as a relatively safe city). That, or they don't know how ineffective steering locks actually are. A decent shove on a handlebar will snap a steering lock with ease (and write the frame off in the process). I regularly count the bikes and scooters in the motorcycle parking bays near my office in Central London as I walk past, and it's a rare occurrence when more than half have any form of visible security. Some don't even bother with steering locks – even on the expensive bikes.
A lack of proactivity:
The Government's struggle to balance the country's books and reduce borrowing has resulted in local councils having their budgets cut drastically. In turn that has meant youth clubs and support groups closing – the same groups previously charged with keeping the poorest and most deprived corners of society on the straight and narrow. Likewise, police funding has been cut. In fact, police numbers in London are set to fall below 30,000 for the first time in 2019. And within that there are also fewer police pursuit drivers – ie, the officers who can actually give chase (if authorized) – as well as less money available to train any more of them.
What Can Be Done?
There are, of course, dozens of other little factors that have led to the current crisis, but simply put, if you're going to commit any kind of crime, the good ol' scooter has become the vehicle of choice. With a scooter you can make your way to and from the scene of the crime with little fear of being chased through ultra-congested city streets. Remove the license plate, wear a helmet and gloves, and you're completely anonymous. And don't worry about finding a scooter – they're everywhere, and taking one is a doddle. Even on the off chance you do get caught, you'll probably only receive a slap on the wrist. When the odds are so far stacked in its favor, is it any wonder this kind of criminal activity has flourished?
Equally concerning is that it isn't just the kids who would have previously used bicycles to snatch phones, watches, and handbags. Hardened criminals have also seen the scooter light. Over the past month, London has seen shootings, stabbings, numerous acid attacks, and robberies carried out by perpetrators on scooters.
Clearly, something has got to give; this situation cannot go on. The problem has simmered away for awhile but has now reached boiling point. It's high profile enough for mass protests outside Westminster Palace and column inches in national newspapers. Furthermore, news tends to spread and before long copycat crime will inevitably start to appear in other major towns and cities. (Perhaps it already has; this week a member of parliament was hit with a brick thrown by a motorcyclist in Birmingham –Ed)
The real question is, what can be done? Tougher sentencing, for a start. Secondly, scooterists and motorcyclists need to be educated and get much more serious about security. It shouldn't be the case that our streets are littered with easy pickings. And it wouldn't hurt if bike manufacturers made steering locks that actually work, and perhaps fit trackers as standard. Police using cars to chase stolen motorcycles and scooters is never going to be particularly effective, but they need to be able to do their jobs without having to worry about being prosecuted in the process
Snatchings, muggings, and stabbings aside for a moment, the theft of high-value motorcycles is probably the easiest crime to tackle. Most of those motorcycles are being stolen to order and shipped out of the country or broken for parts. That means there will be a handful of individuals running breakers or shipping bikes. Find and stop those guys, and the demand for Panigales, S 1000 RRs, R 1200 GSs, etc will drop. Relatedly, eBay could consider vetting profiles selling vehicle parts.
The sad fact is that the end is probably not in sight any time soon. Legislative changes to allow police to be tougher will take time, as will gathering intelligence on the gangs who break and ship bikes. All we can really do is improve our own security, call the police to report anything suspicious, and write to members of Parliament to voice concerns and ask for something to be done. If you live in the UK, I'd urge you to do so.