April 19, 2008

The illusion of Urban Legends - the Dutch Revolving Bicycle Cycle

Chandler spots a post by Michael on those pervasively two-wheeled Dutch, who all share one standard beaten-up old bike model, apparently mass-produced in a beaten-up old bike factory.

The Dutch are also prosperous, and they have a strong engineering and technology culture, so I was surprised on two visits in the last few years to see that their bikes are all junkers: poorly maintained, old, heavy, three-speeds. The word I used was all. ...

I asked about this and everyone immediately said "if you had a good bike it would be immediately stolen." On reflection, I'm not satisfied with the answer, for a couple of reasons. First, the Dutch are about as law-abiding as Americans, perhaps more. Second, the serious lock that has kept my pretty good bikes secure on sketchy streets in two US cities for decades is available for purchase all over the world.

Third, and most important, I don't see how this belief could be justified by real data, because there were absolutely no bikes worth stealing anywhere I looked. ...

Right. So here's an interesting case of an apparently irreconcilable conundrum. Why does all the evidence suggest that bike insecurity is an improbability, yet we all believe it to be pervasive? Let's tear this down, because there are striking parallels between Micheal's topic and the current debate on security. (Disclosure: like half of all good FCers, I've spent some time on Amsterdam wheels, but it is a decade or so back.)

At least, back then, I can confirm that bicycle theft was an endemic problem. I can't swear to any figures, but I recall this: average lifespan of a new bike was around 3 months (then it becomes someone else's old bike). I do recall frequent discussions about a German friend who lost her bike, stolen, several times, and had to go down to the known areas where she could buy another standard beat-up bike from some shady character. Two or three times per year, and I was even press-ganged into riding shotgun once, so I have some first-hand evidence that she wasn't secretly building a bike out of spare parts she had in her handbag. Back then, the going price was around 25-50 guilders (hazy memory) which would be 10-30 euros. Anyone know the price at the moment?

For the most part, I used inline skates. However when I did some small job somewhere (for an FC connection), I was faced with the issue. Get a bike, lose it! As a non-native, I lacked the bicycle-loss-anti-angst-gene, so I was emotionally constrained from buying the black rattler. I faced and defeated the demon with a secret weapon, the Brompton!

The Dutch being law-abiding: well, this is just plain wrong. The Dutch are very up-right, but that doesn't mean they aren't human. Law-abiding is an economic issue, not an absolute. IMO, there is no such thing as a region where everyone abides by the law, there are just regions where they share peculiarities in their attitudes about the law. For tourists, there are stereotypes, but the wise FCer gnaws at the illusion until the darker side of economic reality and humanity is revealed. It's fun, because without getting into the character of the people, you can't design FC systems for them!

As it turns out, there is even a casual political term for this duality: the Dutch Compromise describes their famous ability to pass a law to appease one group of people, and then ignore it totally to appease another. A rather well-known counterexample: it is technically illegal to trade in drugs and prostitution. E.g., for the latter, you are allowed to display your own wares in your own window. For an example, look around for a concentration of red lights in the window.

Final trick: when they buy a new bike (as new stock has to be inserted into the population of rotating wheels), the wise Dutch commuter will spend a few hours making it look old and tatty. Disguise is a skill, which may explain the superficial observation that no bicycle is worth stealing.

What I don't know: why the trade persists. One factor that may explain this is that enough of the Dutch will buy a stolen bike to make it work. I also asked about this, and recall discussions where very up-right, very "law-abiding" citizens did indeed admit to buying stolen wheels. So the mental picture here is of a rental or loaning system, and as a society, they haven't got it together to escape their cyclical prisoner's dilemma.

Also: are bike locks totally secure? About as secure as crypto, I'd say. Secure when it works, a broken bucket of worthless bits when it doesn't. But let's hear from others?

Addendum: citybikes are another curiosity. Adam reportst that they are now being tried in the US.

Posted by iang at April 19, 2008 05:59 AM | TrackBack

Not to disagree with anything you've written, but many Dutch of my acquaintance loved their old bikes. The older the better. They claimed that they don't make them like they used to.

It helps that Holland is so flat. You don't really need more gears if you don't have to go uphill much.

Posted by: Z at April 19, 2008 10:55 AM

Well. First of all it reminds me of the Neal Stephenson novel (snow crash) featurring the bike courier - she had her carbon frame sprayed up with fake rust spray.

Secondly, you may remember Barry the lockpicking guy (went to FC a few times). He exposed the 'insert blank - click - open!' vulnerability from Axa (a subbrand from Assa). It's been all over the news, and of course on http://www.toool.nl/blackbag/ (and please do keep an eye on this site ... Last week Barry impressioned a naval Enigma lock)

Thirdly - the rule is simple. Use two locks. The potential thief out to get a random bike will pick the next bike only locked with a single lock.

My bike was not stolen in Amsterdam since 1990, and I use it all the time and leave it out everywhere.

Posted by: BigMac (blackbag fan) at April 19, 2008 06:20 PM

I'm glad you wrote this piece, I tried leaving a comment at the other site but got a 404 page.

I have two bikes. One is new, I take to work (26 km roundtrip) and for general daily use. It has the factory lock but I don't take it where I know it will be unattended for more than an hour.

Then I have the older bike. This is the one that I can afford to lose, or have parts of it lost. The good bike is insured, the crap bike isn't.

I've never bought a stolen bike but my son once stole his own bike back.

Posted by: Dee at April 20, 2008 05:06 AM

Prostitution is now legal in the Netherlands, since October 2000. If I remember correctly, there were protests against it at the time, largely by prostitutes! Now they have to pay taxes, charge VAT, and perhaps pass health inspections (not sure about this last).

I believe that soft drugs are still illegal but tolerated. Although in July a ban on smoking in cafes, restaurants, and pubs comes into effect, and the anti-druggies are trying to use this to shut down the coffee shops. At least one coffee shop, anticipating the new regulations, has gone non-smoking--apparently most of their business was take-away anyway.

Posted by: Ray at April 20, 2008 05:19 AM

Thanks from the guys closer to the scene. I have one more request: does anyone know the words (Dutch? English) of the song that is sung at football matches against your near dear big neighbour? And, is there a causality or correlation? It would be just too good an urban myth to leave unspread :)

Posted by: Iang at April 20, 2008 06:44 AM
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